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Global portal puts Philly students in the same room with people from distant and troubled lands

“It’s cool. It’s like Skype but not Skype,” said Isabelle Jolinger, a senior at AIM Academy. “I’ve done stuff where I’ve traveled to places — but the portal connects you to places I wouldn’t go.”

Students at AIM Academy interact with Ruba Akram, from Gaza, via a global portal to connect students with people from around the globe.
Students at AIM Academy interact with Ruba Akram, from Gaza, via a global portal to connect students with people from around the globe.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

With her white kitten scurrying around the room, Mira Bakri pulled up a chair and started telling three high schoolers from Conshohocken’s AIM Academy about her life and work in conflict-torn Gaza City, where she teaches high-tech coding skills to Palestinian youths amid their daily struggles for fresh water or electricity.

At times, though, the white kitten dominated the conversation, especially after her feline-adverse student Ruba Akram entered through a side door. The teacher tried to put her pet out through the same door, but it kept coming back as an anxious Akram sheepishly told the Philly-area teens that “it’s a phobia, … [the cat’s] very cute.”

Akram, Bakri, and her four-legged friend were 5,750 miles away, inside the Palestinian territory — though it felt like they were in the room with the Philadelphia-area students and their teacher, Amy Holt Cline. They met inside a device called the Portal, a small inflatable room with a large video screen designed to foster vivid face-to-face interactions among people who’d find it impossible to connect in real life.

The Gaza City chat was part of a whirlwind two-day around-the-world tour for kids from AIM Academy, who staged a boisterous dance party with young people who happened by a Portal at Freedom Park in Lagos, Nigeria. Then, they communed with Syrian refugees who’ve been photographing life in their Greek camp — all while never leaving their bubble on the Montgomery County campus.

Their trial with the Portal was also a window into what educators and the creators of the five-year-old project — Brooklyn-based Shared Studios — hope is becoming a new way to promote international learning and cultural understanding, by taking kids to places far away and perhaps too unsafe or restrictive to physically travel.

“It’s a human connection like nothing else,” said Cline, director of the Center for Global Leadership at the K-12 private school for kids with learning differences, such as dyslexia. She arranged the loan from a teacher friend in Massachusetts, where the inflatable room — 14 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high — is normally stationed. She said she hopes to partner with other schools to base a permanent Portal here, which would be the mid-Atlantic region’s first.

That would place one more pin on an expanding globe for Shared Studios, which launched in 2014 from an idea by co-founders Michelle Moghtader, an Iranian American journalist, and Amar Bakshi, then a Yale law student, to stage a life-size, big-screen interaction between everyday people in New York City and Tehran around the time of the Iran nuclear deal.

Today, their growing project boasts 41 Portals in locations as diverse as Afghanistan, Rwanda, Cuba, Myanmar, Iraq, and Honduras, with about nine or 10 in the United States — each hosting educational exchanges, artistic performances, classes, or casual conversation with someone on the other side of the world. A few of the Portals are permanent rooms, but most have been constructed inside shipping containers or via the blow-up version that was on loan to AIM Academy.

While the meetings take place inside the Portal — with the help of live language interpretation if necessary — students can sometimes get a peek outside if the Portal has a removable wall, as the one in Puerto Rico does. Each has a curator who schedules events.

Jake Levin, chief operating officer of Shared Studios, said the founders believe “technology has done a lot to divide us [and] has not fulfilled its promise of being a great connector. We want to look at how technology can be used to connect people ... in real human ways." He said the Portals can cost from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the application, although they’re always free for users. Institutions and organizations will pay to install a Portal, which will remain at a location for three to six months.

AIM Academy’s Cline agreed that simpler tools like a video computer link-up through Skype simply can’t compare with the immersive experience of the Portal. “The thing about Skype,” she said, “is that you only see the head, and you don’t have to give 100 percent.”

Sophomore Jade McDonnell, 16, said she’s traveled extensively, but she’s never had an experience like talking with the roughly 15 Syrian kids from the refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, who participate in a photojournalism program.

Some Americans, she noted, are dismissive of refugees. “But they’re so much more than refugees,” she said. “They’re doing photography and going to school and doing stuff to be successful.”

In their two-hour conversation Tuesday with Bakri and a few of her protegees, the AIM students discussed matters as heavy as the political situation in the Gaza Strip (“We are totally closed. … There are things you are forbidden to do,” Akram told them) and as light as the current climate in the Middle East (sweater-and-scarf weather, but it’s warming up).

Bakri also spoke of her work with the stereotype-busting Gaza Sky Geeks program, a technology hub where she teaches coding to aspiring entrepreneurs in her battered region, and her frustrations over her homeland’s travel and border restrictions — which is what made their Portal connection so important to her.

“I feel like I’m in the room with you,” said Devon Sparks, a middle-school history teacher who strolled into the Portal. “It’s so nice you’re sharing your morning with us,” she added before realizing it was afternoon in Gaza.

It grew livelier when the AIM students opened their window into Nigeria. In addition to the dance party, about 17 kids from Lagos who’d wandered into that city’s park hung around for about 90 minutes to chat. When some AIM fourth graders wanted to know what the Nigerians typically eat, they got recipes for rice-and-vegetable dishes that the school’s chefs plan to make.

“There was so much energy in the air," McDonnell said. "They were teaching us to dance, we were teaching them dance, and they were singing to us. It was awesome.” She said the kids from the two continents exchanged WhatsApp info and planned to send each other videos.

Senior Isabelle Jolinger, 17, bound for Syracuse University in the fall, entered the Portal to show Bakri her senior project – using recycled products to make solar-powered lights for people in Kenya — and to talk about collaborating on a similar project called Lights for Gaza.

“It’s cool. It’s like Skype, but not Skype,” said Jolinger, who also spoke with the Syrian refugees. “I’ve done stuff where I’ve traveled to places — but the portal connects you to places I wouldn’t go.”