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Inside A Dallas Shipping Container, People Connect With The World

Dallas Portal Screen
Stella M. Chávez
A group from City Year Dallas talks with two men in Afghanistan inside a shipping container at Bonton Farms.

On a recent December morning, five twenty-somethings gathered inside a gold shipping container at Bonton Farms in Southeast Dallas. It was like a mini movie auditorium with a large projector screen. 

On the screen, they could see and talk with two young men in Herat, Afghanistan.

“I have one question: What is the temperature there?” asked 21-year-old Racquel Ashe, who works for the education nonprofit City Year Dallas.

It was 40 degrees in Dallas, but outside the cold container, it felt closer to 30. That day, it was warmer in Afghanistan.

“In Celsius here, it feels like it’s 5,” said Ashe’s colleague, 22-year-old Elizabeth Bonnell.  “It’s cold. We’re all shaking.”

This shipping container is called a portal. They’ve been placed all around the world, courtesy of a nonprofit called Shared Studios. The mission is simple: connect people who may otherwise never get the chance to meet. 

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Shared Studios has set up shipping containers, also called portals, like this one around the country. Visitors walk inside and connect with people around the world via a video screen and internet connection.

The group from City Year works in public schools and mentors students at risk of dropping out. They’re from around the county. Their new friends in Afghanistan are Hamid Nemani, a recent high school graduate, and Saied Habibi, curator of the Herat_Portal.

Nemani said he wants to attend an American university and study electrical engineering. He had questions about immigration.

“As a citizen of the United States, what’s your first impression of seeing a huge [number] of people coming into your country?” he asked.

Everyone looked at Oscar Hernandez, who’s 25, and plans to study immigration law after he completes his stint with City Year.

“I think it’s a very pressing issue considering that we’ve been having a lot of political turmoil in Washington over the status of refugees,” he said.

 group from City Year Dallas in the portal container
Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
A group from the education nonprofit City Year Dallas sits inside the shipping container, or Dallas_Portal, to talk with two men in Herat, Afghanistan.

Bonton Farms is an interesting location for the Dallas_Portal. It’s a 40-acre urban farm, market and café in an area south of downtown often described as a food desert.

The pop-up installation has also been at Klyde Warren Park and NorthPark Center in Dallas.

Ricky Jimmerson, vice president of operations at Bonton Farms, said the portal was a rewarding experience and he would like to bring it back in the spring.

“The thing that was interesting for us is the fact that we really saw an opportunity to expose our community to a whole new world,” he said. “Number one, to see some of the commonalities we have with people all over the world. Number two, to appreciate some differences and learn something new about other people, as well as teach them something that you’re doing.”

That’s something Beverly Manriquez, 21, was eager to experience.

“I really loved it,” she said. "I’ve had other opportunities to talk to people in other countries, but this felt different just because of the screen and how you see them full size. It felt like they were in the room with us.”

Bonnell, who teaches geometry and algebra, said she was particularly interested in understanding the issue of water scarcity and how that creates conflict between countries.

“I found the water dispute very interesting,” she said. I feel like I’m not as well informed about using water for power sources and how it’s being pumped out of one country and being used to benefit another."

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Hamid Nemani, a recent high school graduate, and Saied Habibi, curator of the Herat_Portal, talk about the dishes they like to eat in Afghanistan.

Matthieu Cartal, curator for the Dallas_Portal, said communicating through them can help build bridges.

“Being in Afghanistan or in the U.S. or in Mexico [or] in other countries, you faced with the same struggles and realities. You have to earn a living, find shelter and have some food.”

But, he added, the experience can also be pure fun as Nemani and Habibi wrap up the conversation with some music and dancing for their Dallas friends.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.