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.
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.
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."
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.