What Is it Like to Be a Refugee? Here’s Your Chance to Ask One

At the U.S. Holocaust Museum, an immersive video chatting experience allows you to talk in real-time with refugees living in camps

The Portal exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, offering a chance to have a conversation with refugees. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
smithsonian.com

Nassir Saiel remembers the sound of shooting, the guns and rockets, the lack of food. Ayad Asaad remembers the church and Shi’ite mosque being destroyed, the kidnapped girls, the Russian jets, and waiting to be beheaded because the Islamic extremists were convinced he was a member of the Yazidis, a religious minority. Zaid Faisal remembers fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) scouring his family’s home for weapons. Mohammad Taha remembers his father, who was assassinated by ISIS fighters in 2012, shot nine times. The four of them, all under the age of 21, remember running, thinking they were going to be killed by the extremists, and hoping that they might be one of the lucky few who find safety and a new home in another country.

On Thursday, I sat inside a gold-painted shipping crate at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and spoke to these four young men. Their images were life-sized, filling the back wall of the crate. They passed a microphone back and forth to share their stories in real-time, and their responses were immediate enough that we might almost have been sitting in the same room together—except they were in an identical crate eight time-zones and 6,000 miles away, in a refugee camp outside Erbil, Iraq.

The next day, an executive order signed by President Trump indefinitely barred refugees from seven countries (including Iraq), all majority-Muslim, from entering the country and suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days. Following the release of the order, refugees, students, visitors and green-card-holding permanent U.S. residents were stopped at airports in the United States and around the world, often being detained for hours.

My chat with the four young men, just hours before American refugee policy changed, came to have even more resonance in retrospect. Nassir, Zaid, Ayad and Mohammad have lived in a camp in Kurdistan, Iraq, for multiple years now, with access to food and shelter but without electricity and sometimes without water. (The video-chat set-up is one of the only places in camp with any power.) The questions of where they’ll go next or if they’ll ever be able to return home are unanswerable.

The video feed, streaming live between the two locations, is part of a new exhibition at the museum called “The Portal.” It links Americans with refugees at points around the world, in Erbil, Berlin, and soon in Amman, Jordan. The Portals themselves, with the audio and video equipment inside them, are designed by Shared Studios, an art and technology collective.

The museum then works with regional partners like UNICEF to find young refugees interested in participating in the exchange. With the assistance of translators on either side of the divide, refugees living in camps that host a Portal can share questions, answers and even jokes with Americans. The goal isn’t just to reiterate the horrors of ongoing violence in the region, but also to show that the refugees are real people with families and hobbies. With no homes and little stability, they have real and severe worries, but their lives are more than just their status as a refugee.

“I hope to share our stories for all people,” says Rami Mohammad, who works with UNICEF to act as a translator for Portal participants in Erbil. “Maybe there is someone who sees it and can help us.”

While we talked, Mohammad played with his phone and Nassir slung his arm around Rami’s shoulders. They laughed, they joked, they complained about the teachers in Erbil, who don’t take as much time with the lessons here as the teachers they had in their hometowns. They had their own questions for me: where I’m from, if I’d let them visit the U.S., and if it’s true that all Americans hate Muslims and Arabs.

Rami has been surprised by the reactions to this last question, to learn that not all people in America are prejudiced against Muslims, and that many would welcome people like him to the country. “And I was surprised by the American people because I thought that life in the USA and other places is different than our life,” Rami added. Despite the geographic distance, Rami has often found commonalities with American museum visitors.

It’s a sentiment that runs both ways, according to comments left by museum visitors who tried the Portal experience. “I was initially nervous to speak to them because I kept thinking, ‘These people have gone through so much, how can I possibly connect with them?’ However they were so wonderful and funny, we talked about soccer and music and school,” wrote one visitor.

“I’m frustrated because I want to help, but it’s hard to know what to do,” wrote another. “I want the government to do more. Hearing directly from someone in a camp makes it so much more real.”

“People are being targeted for persecution and death on the basis of their religious, ethnic and political identities, contributing to the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II and the Holocaust,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, in an e-mail about the museum’s decision to host this exhibition. The ongoing refugee crisis has displaced 3.4 million Iraqis and 4.8 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country. Iraq has been ranked as the nation worst affected by terror, according to The Independent, with the violence wrought by ISIS affecting everyone in a country that is 95-percent Muslim.

“One of the principal messages we hope visitors leave with is that genocide did not end with the Holocaust and that it is preventable,” Hudson said. “Our intention is to help people understand the relevance of the Holocaust today and to reflect on their own responsibilities as citizens in a democracy.”

For all the joking and talk of playing soccer and hanging out in cafes by the young refugees, the four men at the other end of my Portal ended on a more serious note: they wanted Americans to know that their situation is not good. They live in a refugee camp, often making do without water and electricity, and they don’t know if they’ll ever be able to return home—or if any other countries will take them in.

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