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November 09, 2017

Diane Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, traveled to Iraq where she heard from Syrian refugees frustrated that so many people know so little about them. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

Harvard Divinity School has brought to the Cambridge campus this week a large shipping container that serves as a portal to refugees around the world, using audio-visual technology that allows students and refugees to have live conversations.

WGBH's higher education desk got a preview of this effort to bridge cultures.

Think Skype on steroids. Inside a gold-painted shipping container, graduate students sit in front of a large screen watching a live video feed.

They're chatting with Syrian refugees in another, identical shipping container located more than 4,000 miles away, in Jordan.

First-year student Shannon Boley says when she first came face-to-face with a refugee in the portal, it felt as if they were in the same room.

"I study religion and refugee resettlement. I do ethnographic interviews,” Boley said. “This is my passion, but this took it to another level of not just sharing stories, but sharing something even deeper than a story."

The 23-year-old from Westfield, Massachusetts is Catholic, and she describes the virtual meeting as a religious experience.

"This young girl who didn't speak much during the talk was kind of pressured by some of the other members to start singing, and she sang this beautiful song in Arabic," Boley recalled. "It was just moving. Gorgeous.”

Then, Boley sang a song that is close to her and her faith – Ave Maria.

"'To have a Muslim girl sing a song really important to her, and [to] me, as a Catholic woman, it wasn't just, 'Oh, we're in the same room.' It was above that. It was like we were in a really, spiritual, emotional, vulnerable space."

The Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School is sponsoring this portal. Last year, Project Director Diane Moore traveled to Iraq, where she heard from Syrian refugees who were frustrated that so many people know so little about them.

"I spoke with them and asked, 'Well, what is it that we could do on our end to support you at this time?' and they said, 'Tell our stories. Help get our stories out, because we're fearful that we're just numbers on a graph,’" said Moore.

She hopes these personal conversations will shape her students' ministry and mission work in the future.

"It's really critical for us to use our privilege at the academy to help people better understand these kinds of challenges around the world and put a human face to this," she said.

The Divinity School has been encouraging others to participate, and Moore says some have.

"A lot of people who are already interested in this are walking by,” she said, “and we've invited them in to just make a connection and make a contact."

Greater Boston: Cambridge Portals

These portals come from the company Shared Studios, which has set them up around the world — from Colorado Springs to Cuba, Mexico, and Myanmar. One just went up in Times Square.

The portals “create a space where people can enter and create their own meaning with strangers all around the world," said Harvard graduate Amar Bakshi, the founder of Shared Studios. Bakshi has family roots in Pakistan.

"We are now so connected, and we tend to use that power to ensconce ourselves more deeply in our existing communities,” Bakshi said. “We use Facebook to chat with people we already know."

Bakshi hopes these portals will make students aware that there are good reasons to reach out to people they don't already know, or would never know otherwise.

The shipping container will be in the Boston area for the next two weeks. It moves next to Boston College and then downtown to the Hynes Convention Center during the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting.

Earlier: Students Compete In Social Media Campaign To Counter Extremism

Syrian refugees, increasing access and success, global competitiveness, re, Harvard

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