WUSA: 'Portal' brings you face-to-face with Syrian refugees

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WASHINGTON, DC - Despite the horrific visuals coming out of Syria's civil war on a daily basis, it's easy to feel as if the conflict, and the associated refugee crisis, is a world away. But new technology is helping to connect Americans to Syrian refugees, in a way that puts people face-to-face, despite the distance. 

This is all taking place at the Holocaust Museum, where they've partnered with a company called Shared Studios. That company creates "portals," which are essentially shipping crates equipped with a large screen, cameras, microphones, and lights.

These portals have been spread across the globe, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Mexico and Korea. The portal in the Holocaust museum is connected to various refugee camps, including a former Nazi Airport in Berlin, Germany, housing hundreds of Syrian refugees.

"The Syrian regime wanted me to go back to the army," said Omar Alshafai through the screen. "That's why I decided to just turn away from Syria."

Alshafai, a Syrian refugee, was speaking with Susan Mulhner, a visitor to the museum from Buffalo, New York. The two spoke of family and every-day life. They also spoke of pain and heartbreak. 

"It was just a great experience to hear his normal life," she said. "And the struggle that he's going through now. And having to live this institutional life when he just wants to sit down on his mom's couch and have her make him food... We can all go home to our family if we want to for dinner. He can't do that."

Omar traveled by land and sea, across six countries to escape Syria. He said there were many times that he thought he might die. Now that he's in Germany, he said he just wants to live.

"We can show the world who we are," he said. "I am not a refugee. I am just Omar coming from Syria. I have a different background. I have a different experience."

The portal was brought into the Holocaust Museum as a part of their Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Director for the program, Cameron Hudson, said that the focus is on raising awareness about genocide across the globe. 

"One of the things we were looking to do was to humanize the voices and the stories," said Hudson. "Because the numbers of the amount of people being effected by these crimes are in the hundreds of thousands." 

The Holocaust Museum is free, and you can sign up to visit the portal, by visiting the following link: https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/museum-exhibitions/the-portal.

In a first-come-first-serve basis, the portal also takes walk-in visits.

(© 2017 WUSA)