Iraqi refugees in Erbil listen as Wassim Subie translates their words to Nancy Gillette at a video “portal” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that allows live, face-to-face conversations from across the globe. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

On a blustery Friday morning, Carolyn Rapkievian wrapped herself in a coat and gauzy scarf and walked a mile from her office to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She climbed to the second floor, stepped into a 16-foot-long, gold-painted shipping container, and settled onto a short wooden stool. It was the day after her 60th birthday.

On a balmy evening in Irbil, Iraq, a teenager named Sami left the cramped, one-room structure he shared with his family and made his way across the Harsham refugee camp to a small concrete building, where his brother and two friends sat in plastic chairs. Sami flopped down beside them and yawned; he had stayed up late the night before, playing cards with his friends. It was his 18th birthday.

And then, through a pair of eight-foot video screens linked across thousands of miles, Rapkievian and the four young Iraqi men were suddenly in the same room — an arm’s length and eight time zones apart.

When Rapkievian, a Smithsonian staffer, heard about the new exhibition allowing visitors to spend 20-minute sessions speaking face-to-face with Syrian or Iraqi refugees through a video “portal,” she signed up right away — and then pondered what to talk about. She knew she would mention her grandparents, who had narrowly escaped the 1915 mass slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. But she would avoid politics, although she had been closely following the controversy around President Trump’s travel ban temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. Rapkievian figured she could offer the refugees an opportunity to share their thoughts and stories, if they wanted to. If they didn’t, that was okay, too.

Flanked by a translator, the petite American woman smiled at the boyish Iraqi teenager.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Carolyn.”

“Hi,” Sami said.

Personal stories

The portal, created by the art and technology collective Shared Studios, sits in the rear of an exhibition that highlights the continuing threat of genocide. Visitors walk past explicit displays about ongoing conflicts and the increasingly dire global refugee crisis — maps, documentary videos, photos of frightened families crowded onto tiny boats.

“When we talk about genocides going on in the world, there’s a sort of numbing effect because the numbers are so big,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “So through the portal experience, we’re able to go beyond the analysis and also tell the personal stories.”

The life-size screen connects visitors in Washington to a rotating cast of Syrian refugees in Berlin and Jordan, and Iraqi refugees in Irbil. They often greet their American counterparts with cheerful smiles.

“That surprises people sometimes,” said Marisa DeSalvio, portal curator at Shared Studios.

The Syrians and Iraqis who participate in the portal project have been forced from their homes by the Islamic State or the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; many have suffered trauma and witnessed horror. But they are in safer circumstances now, with hobbies, daily routines and hope for their future. These tend to be safer topics for a brief chat with a stranger.

“Sometimes, adults ask political questions, and [the refugees] get nervous — it becomes work for them,” said Wassim Subie, who serves as a translator on the museum’s side of the portal. “It’s chemistry — sometimes people click, and sometimes they don’t.” Children visiting the museum, he said, often do a better job of breaking the ice.

Carolyn Rapkievian listens as Wassim Subie translates. She kept her questions open-ended and avoided asking the Iraqis about politics. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Two American women speak with refugees in Erbil, Iraq. Visitors realize that “each individual has a story of survival,” said a museum official. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

But even the mundane commonalities and awkward exchanges resonate; there is the sudden proximity to a person who might share your favorite soccer team, who likes to hang out at coffee shops and scroll through Facebook — even if they also happen to live in a sprawling, dust-covered refugee camp where they share a single tent with several family members.

Roughly 1,600 visitors have used the portal since it arrived in December (it will be open through March 8), and many of those tourists and schoolchildren have filled the exhibit’s guest book with heartfelt reflections. It shows “what we wanted to achieve,” said Hudson, “which is the humanization of these conflicts, and for people to walk away with the idea that these aren’t just numbers, that these are individuals, and each individual has a story of survival.”

I really enjoyed meeting the men from Iraq and hearing that they do some of the same things we do for fun.

I felt like the young man could have been my son.

Hearing directly from someone in a camp makes it so much more real.

Sometimes, if the schedule isn’t booked, visitors stay in the portal for much longer than 20 minutes, DeSalvio said. “That’s when it gets more interesting.” Otherwise, the routine can grow repetitive for the refugees, the same questions over and over. What do you like to do in your spare time? Where did you live? How old are you?

“What do you wish people would ask you?” one young woman asked the young men sitting across from her on a recent weekday afternoon.

Sami answered: “Everything.”

(Courtesy of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
‘What happened to your family?’

For Americans who are nervous about how to start the conversation, Shared Studios suggests a few questions: What’s going on outside your portal today? What do you like to do for fun? What do you want Americans to know about you? (Sami has a go-to answer to this one: “We hope Americans will know that not all Iraqis are ISIS.”)

But Rapkievian had other questions in mind. On the screen in front of her, the four young men in Iraq — Sami, his brother Rami, and their friends Mustafa and Mohammed, all of whom asked to be identified by their first names only — listened as Subie translated her words into Arabic.

“What happened to your family that you had to end up here?” she asked.

“The thing that made us leave is ISIS and all the terrorism,” Mustafa answered. “That forced us to flee our homes.”

It was a simple answer that left much unsaid: Mustafa did not talk about how his family left Mosul in the middle of the night, how their cars were stolen by Islamic State fighters who shot at them while Mustafa’s little brothers cowered in terror. Sami, who was 15 when he fled with his family, did not share his memory of the road they traveled, strewn with dead bodies, destroyed homes, the charred husks of burned ambulances.

“What are things that give you hope and encouragement every day?” Rapkievian asked.

“We really want to get back to our home town,” Mustafa said. “We want to go back to our friends and our families.”

Students from Ohio State University videoconference with some young men in Erbil, Iraq. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Later, Rapkievian would say that she had asked these questions to give them the opportunity to share more about their past, or their thoughts on politics, if they felt comfortable. “But I sensed that they didn’t want to go there, and I wanted them to take the lead on how intimate they wanted to be. You can’t be too intimate with strangers, because that’s not natural.”

So she smiled and changed the topic. They talked about the weather, their jobs, their favorite kinds of music. She told them that she had just turned 60, and Sami wished her a happy birthday in English; he told her that he had just turned 18, and she returned his wishes. Rapkievian caught a glimpse of the phone in Rami’s hand and gestured toward it: “Do you have music on your phone?” she asked. “Play me something you like.”

Rami smiled shyly and held the phone to the microphone. The portal filled with the sound of drums and synths, the lilting voice of a male singer.

Rapkievian smiled. “I love this music,” she said, and then, because their time was already coming to a close: “Thank you for doing this.”

“You’re welcome,” Mustafa said. “This is a joy for us.”

Rapkievian would finish her workday, then commute home, where her husband would host her big birthday party the next day. She would tell her friends about the portal and urge them to check it out.

“Maybe this will compel people to be more active, to transform them from just observers into people who get involved in this issue,” she said.

Half a world away, the young men in Irbil would talk to a few more Americans, then gather to celebrate Sami’s birthday — there would be games, a cake, a wish that this might be his last birthday in the refugee camp.

“Hopefully this year,” Mustafa said, “we can go home.”

The Portal at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, through March 8. Free, but reservations are required.