Digital Portal Connects New Haven with Northern Iraq

This week, a golden shipping container will be standing in front of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. It’s an installation called a Shared Studio Portal, and it’s one of several around the world that connect strangers for 20-minute video chats.

I visited the installation earlier this month when a refugee camp in northern Iraq joined the portal network for the first time.

The container takes up two whole parking spaces on College Street in New Haven. Inside, gray carpet covers the corrugated metal box from floor to ceiling--except for a video wall.

“It’s a pretty basic set up,” said Amar Bakshi, “it’s like giant Skype.”

Bakshi is the journalist-turned-artist that built this space. We stood in front of a web camera, microphone, LED lights, speakers, and a space heater. About a year ago, Bakshi started setting up portals like this all over the world--in Cuba, Iran, and, now, Iraq. He started the first Skype call to the new portal in Erbil, Iraq.

A woman named Lindsay MacKenzi appeared on screen like she’s standing in the same room.

MacKenzie works for UNICEF IRAQ and she set up the portal at the refugee camp in the city of Erbil.

“Today is our first day to getting all the kind of technical kinks worked out to make sure the internet works and the power,” MacKenzie said. “But this space is located inside. It’s a camp for displaced Iraqis, which is located inside the city of Erbil. So there’s a few thousand people living in the camp. Most of them fled Mosul in June 2014, so they’ve been living in the camp since then.”

Mosul is a city occupied by ISIS. The camp is not far from the frontline of the conflict between ISIS and Iraqi forces trying to take back the city.

“I think that life in these camps can be a little bit monotonous and isolating, so we thought it would be great to connect with all the different portals around the world,” MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie introduced me to the man I would be having a conversation with, Mazzin. Mazzin told me what life is like living in the camps, through a translator.

“It’s a little bit isolated and not normal,” Mazzin said. “People live inside caravans or tents and there are not enough help available.”

I asked Mazzin what it would take to make his day better.

“The first thing that we are looking for is safety and stability. In the previous regime of Saddam and in this regime, we haven’t seen any of those two,” Mazzin said. “The previous regime was better than this sometimes. Now, people kill each other on the streets--in Mosul and in the Arabic and Sunni parts of Iraq.”

I told Mazzin that on Yale’s campus in New Haven, most people on the streets don’t seem worried about safety. They rush to their morning classes.

Mazzin told me he has one year left before graduating from business school, but he’s missed two years of college because of the conflict with ISIS. I asked what he hopes to do when he finishes his education.

“Of course I have many ambitions in my head,” Mazzin said, “But as Iraqis [sic] I can’t decide because my future is unknown, and it’s not in my hands.”

After the video chat, Amar Bakshi said he wants the portal to stay in Erbil as long as the camp exists. He said he wants to build a permanent network of portals around the world.

“You could easily call these guys on Skype yourself,” Bakshi said. “But you need the community, you need the context and you need the moment.”  

Bakshi says there’s something special about having a place to start a conversation--for no other purpose than trying to understand another person.

“And that’s what this project tries to do,” Bakshi said.

Visitors can book a conversation with someone from Iraq or Afghanistan at the portal in New Haven until Thursday, April 14th.