Taking an international journey, here in Colorado Springs
I am standing in a darkened room, facing three young men with dark hair and eyes, and nearly matching, neatly trimmed goatees. They are wearing clean blue jeans and T-shirts. One is barefoot.
They sit in bright yellow plastic chairs. They fiddle with their cellphones. When a joke is made about them having their pictures taken, they smile shyly or look away.
One of the young men, who gives his name as Rami, communicates with my companion, Mary O’Meallie, via a cellphone-based messaging service called Slack. We’re having a minor audio glitch, and both Rami and O’Meallie are working with remote tech support to resolve the problem.
If it weren’t for the black, staring eye of the camera hovering over their heads, it would be easy to imagine these men were sitting just feet away at a bus station or on the other side of a large living room.
But they’re not.
They’re in one of the permanent structures at the Harsham IDP (internally displaced people) and Refugee Camp outside of Erbil, Iraq. They are refugees who fled their villages a half-decade ago, in an effort to avoid the Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul and surrounding villages.
Five years after the fall of the city that spans the Tigris River (and two years after its recapture by the Iraqi government), these young men still wait. They still work. They still attend university. They still have hopes, dreams and bright visions for the future.
And during the next hour, they will become my friends.Portal to the world
We are connecting via a bright gold technological marvel called a Portal. From the outside, it really doesn’t look like much.
It’s a 20-by-8-foot metal box, roughly the size and shape of the box on a delivery truck. It has a large compressor and some thick cords jutting out from its front. One back door swings open, and a folding table at the entrance welcomes guests to sign in.
But it’s not for the exterior that people stop by the Portal, which on this particular day is docked outside the Sand Creek Library, 1821 S. Academy Blvd. Like so many other things, it’s what you find inside that counts.
“When you enter, you come face-to-face with someone in a distant portal and can converse as if in the same room,” says the explanation painted on the installation’s door.
The Portals, located in areas as near as Phoenix and Dallas and as far away as Afghanistan, Kenya, Australia and, yes, Iraq, are part of a global public art initiative. Its mission, according to developer Shared_Studios, is to harness cutting-edge technology to help users engage in an authentic, human-to-human experience.
Colorado Springs is home to the only Portal in the state — a traveling installation, rather than a permanent structure,capable of popping up in public places across the Front Range. The nonprofit Imagination Celebration coordinates the installation, which was brought to the community by collaborating with the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, the Pikes Peak Library District, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Creative Industries and the Bee Vradenburg Foundation. It made its debut at the multi-agency, arts, science, technology and innovation-celebrating What If … Festival.
Dialogue without borders
On this day, we are connecting with 21-year-old Rami, 22-year-old Rael, who does not provide his full name, and the third man, who leaves early without giving his name or age.
Rami, a trilingual business student, is employed as the Portal’s Iraqi curator. He is charged with translating our questions for his comrades and their answers for us. Each Portal has such a curator: O’Meallie fills the role in Colorado Springs.
As of July 3, 32 of these installations were in action across the globe, according to the Shared_Studios website, with 17 more scheduled to come online in the coming months. The Portal left the Sand Creek Library on July 10; however, you can find its current location and schedule at sharedstudios.com/colorado-springs. Link-up times are carefully coordinated to accommodate the unique needs at each end.
In Erbil, Rami explains, there is limited internet access and the power can be sporadic … both of which create unique challenges when appointments are made.
Then there’s the issue of time zones.
When we connect with Iraq, it’s 10:20 a.m., nine hours behind our friends on the other side of the world. It’s the end of a long, hot day in northern Iraq, and there are a few politely stifled yawns as we exchange pleasantries about our days and introductions to our respective lives.
Roughly 300 families comprise 1,600 people in the camp, they say. It’s located outside of Erbil, an ancient city — “It’s just like any European city,” Rael says — and the capital of Kurdish Iraq. Water is not a problem in the camp, and food and supplies are readily available, although agriculture in the tightly packed camp is a non-starter. Erbil is clean and safe, and tourists would be drawn to the mountains, waterfalls and historic sights surrounding the city, the young men say.
Rami and O’Meallie greet one another as old friends. It’s been a while since they last talked, and they catch one another up on issues such as recovery efforts following a major fire in the camp.
“They had to rebuild everything,” he says. “They’re back to their normal lives.”
Rael tells us he commutes into the city to attend the university and, when not studying, is employed as a camp teacher by non-governmental organizations (NGO). He instructs children ages 4 to 10 in general education curricula such as sciences, mathematics and languages.
In their camp of 1,600, plenty of youths are in need of instruction.
“When we came here, we lost everything,” he says through Rami’s interpretation. “We are always wanting to work, to keep living life.”
The same, he says, goes for the camp’s children.
We’ve had tears, we’ve had laughter. We’ve had shared meals, we’ve had yoga. It’s rewarding to be in there and know you’ve made a difference in people’s lives.” — Mary O’Meallie, curator for the Colorado Springs_Portal
A long journey
When asked about the journey to the camp, Rami becomes animated. Both young men, just teenagers at the time of the 1994 takeover of Mosul, traveled to Erbil with their families.
“It was a crazy trip,” Rami says.
It took seven days, Rami says, and three international border crossings. The family joined a caravan 100 people strong, traveling by car, truck, bus and foot from their homes near the Syrian border in a large loop across the Syrian and Turkish borders and back into Iraq, he says.
Under normal conditions, according to current mapping software, Mosul and Erbil are roughly a 90-minute drive from one another.
At times, the refugees traveling by foot had to walk in a straight line to avoid stepping on an improvised explosive device, or IED, and when they got to Erbil, their Arabic heritage made them suspect to the Kurdish majority.
“When we arrived to Erbil city to the checkpoint, we slept three days on the street,” Rami says. “We were not allowed into the city because we are Arabs.”
A French NGO picked up the travelers and took them the rest of the way to Harsham.
Today, Rami says, relations are better. But they aren’t perfect.
“We have to be careful where we go and not go too far away,” he says.
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** Connection to the world **
It’s easy to see how these young men could be jaded by their circumstances; yet, remarkably neither is. They are both single and very connected with their families, and each maintains an optimistic vision for his life after refugee status.
Rael hopes to build his life someplace safe with basic human services and comforts. Rami, however, wants to finish his degree and then travel the world.
In more depth than he does through the Portal, anyway … although, rest assured, the experience is never far from his mind.
“I would like to do a trip to visit all the Portal locations,” he says with a laugh. Then, with a wave, he adds: “Come to Iraq and see our Portal!”
O’Meallie and Rami chat about past experiences, swapping stories of the transformative impact of these intimate conversations. There was the non-communicative child with developmental challenges, who ran to the screen to hug a curator in Australia. There were the guests who were surprised to learn cultural stereotypes were inaccurate and inappropriate.
And then there were the multiple stories from both curators about guests who came in with preconceptions about their foreign peers, only to have those beliefs torn asunder.
“We’ve had tears, we’ve had laughter. We’ve had shared meals, we’ve had yoga,” O’Meallie says. “It’s rewarding to be in there and know you’ve made a difference in people’s lives.”
“It’s a real educational thing, this project,” Rami says.
“We are family,” he adds, from his golden structure located in a corner of the cradle of humanity. “Maybe we can’t meet each other face-to-face, but we are all family.”