Face Time With Refugees

November 8, 2017
Shared Studios portal at HDS
The project allows participants in distant portals to make eye contact and feel as if they are talking in the same room. Video still: Joe Sherman, Harvard Staff

Harvard Divinity School student Shannon Boley pushed open the heavy door to the large shipping container and slowly stepped out on to the School’s campus green, wiping away tears from her eyes.

Asked why she was crying, she said “that was just a connection I haven’t had in a long time.”

Boley, an MTS candidate, had just met a 15-year-old girl living more than 5,500 miles away near Amman, Jordan. While their exchange took place half a world apart, it nonetheless became emotional when the two of them sang for each other. The girl sang a song in Arabic about love and longing. Boley sang Ave Maria.

“Ave Maria is one of my favorite songs. It’s central to my faith as a Catholic and was one of my late grandmother’s favorite songs. It was a beautiful, spiritual experience,” said Boley, her eyes still red from crying. “On the other end of the world you’re sharing this really intimate part of you. I’m singing this song that means so much to me and I could tell her song meant so much to her.”

Boley’s exchange on Monday with the teen girl occurred through an effort of the Religious Literacy Project at HDS and Shared Studios, a collective that creates “Portals” inside shipping containers that are outfitted with immersive technology allowing for real-time, face-to-face conversations between people in similar spaces across the world. HDS is hosting one of the Portals on campus through Thursday, November 9.

The conversations and exchanges through the Portal at HDS took place as the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including nearly 23 million refugees, according to The UN Refugee Agency.

Although education about relevant facts and figures is important, there is no substitute for a personal encounter to reframe a person’s understanding of the global refugee crisis. That sentiment is why Diane Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project, partnered with the American Academy of Religion and the Henry Luce Foundation to bring a Shared Studios Portal to campus. Over the course of six days, the Portal would allow for members of the Harvard community to have conversations with residents and refugees living in Berlin, Gaza City, Jordan, and Iraq.

In March, Moore traveled to Erbil, Iraq, where she met with refugees. Some of them had been displaced for more than three years. Most of them were escaping the violence and fighting taking place in Mosul, once an ISIS stronghold. What she heard from refugees there stuck with her.

“The thing I heard over and over again was that they were frustrated so many people have little understanding of what’s taking place. There’s a feeling of the need for recognition of the United States’s role in setting in motion many of the events that have happened, and the consequences of that,” she said. “There was a concern that no one knows about them—that they’re statistics, they’re massive numbers in the news—there was a concern they feel unseen.”

The goal of the Portals, said Amar Bakshi, Harvard ’06, the founder and artist of Shared Studios, is that each encounter and engagement—whether between Gaza and Cambridge, or Gaza and Kigali, Rawanda—yields a conversation and collaboration that is beneficial for those on all sides of the conversation.

“What that benefit is can vary from individual to individual or group by group. In some cases it’s very clear, provision of legal advice to a refugee seeking legal asylum, because there are a lot of lawyers around here and there are fewer in Erbil. It can be a lot more amorphous, though. It can be a game of charades between two kids. A kid in Erbil who has very little to do day-to-day, and a kid here who has only heard about refugees through the news,” said Bakshi.

The Religious Literacy Project is dedicated to promoting and enhancing the public understanding of religion through work with educators around the world, but particularly in the United States and locally in Cambridge. That’s why Moore invited Cambridge Rindge and Latin School history teacher Rachel Otty, who is taking Moore’s “Religion, Conflict and Peace in Contemporary Global Affairs” course through Harvard Extension School, to bring her high school students to the Portal.

“This makes the abstract more real. In the past I’ve had to rely on video and readings, but the fact that the students have actually talked to people who are living in Jordan or who have lived in Syria at one point means they have context that most students don’t have,” said Otty. “Some of the assumptions that students have going into topics like this are already starting to break down. It means we have more of a common language to start a unit lesson.”

The Portal not only served as an opportunity for students to learn more deeply about the refugee crisis, but also for others across Harvard to gain new insight for their own work. Staff from the Division of Continuing Education, for example, were scheduled to use the Portal to connect with educators in Iraq to discuss improving distance learning for refugees. Students from the Kennedy School’s Middle East Refugee Service Initiative spoke with young adults living in Gaza City. A student from the Graduate School of Education on Tuesday had a discussion about poetry with teens in Iraq.

Moore said her students will participate in follow-up discussions about what it means to carry these conversations and stories from the refugees with them in their future scholarship, advocacy work, or ministry.

“Many of our students are eager to understand the challenges that people are facing here in the U.S. and around the world where religion intersects with issues of public policy, humanitarian action, journalism, and other areas,” she said. “This is a perfect setting for us to connect not only with people around the world, but with each other.”

—by Michael Naughton