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Ambassador talks to refugee camp via video link at UN

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    In this Sept. 30, 2015 photo, Jayashri Wyatt, a United Nations staff member from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, right, chats with Mohammed Kraat, a Syrian wrestling coach living at the Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, through a digital portal set up at U.N. headquarters. The U.N. portal is set up in a tent outside the world body’s headquarters.

NEW YORK >> The muscular young man on one side of the video link spoke of his flight from Syria and his life since 2012 at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where he teaches wrestling to boys.

"We escaped with almost nothing," Mohammed Kraat, once a champion wrestler in Syria, said through a translator. Half a world away in a tent outside the United Nations, Jayashri Wyatt, who works for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, listened and nodded.

"My sport is surfing," Wyatt said. "Here in New York I surf Rockaway Beach and Long Beach." Kraat told Wyatt about the satisfaction he gets teaching kids the sport he loves.

The connection was enabled by a project called Portals which is intended, its creator Amar Bakshi said, as a global community center where people in different countries can strike up conversations. There are currently 14 portals around the globe at locations including Tehran, Mexico City, Havana and Nashville.

The Za’atari portal is the only one at a refugee camp; the others are at locations such as art galleries and college campuses.

While the U.N. portal is in what looks like a big photo booth, most of the others operate out of 20-foot-long shipping crates spray-painted gold. Inside, the person on the other end of the link appears on a large screen.

The first portal was set up between New York and Tehran in December. Each portal has one paid staffer who is responsible for providing interpreters as needed, said Bakshi, a 31-year-old with degrees from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale Law School who has worked as a journalist and as a special assistant to Power’s predecessor at the U.N., Susan Rice.

The portals, organized by a collective called Shared Studios with Bakshi as founder, have received $75,000 from crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

The U.N. is partnering with Shared Studios on its portal, and other venues such as galleries also pay to house the portals, Bakshi said.

Shared Studios is soliciting additional donations on its website to place portals in locations that can’t afford to pay for them.

"Wherever there’s a community that wants to join, we want to have them," Bakshi said.

The portals are intended for one-one-one talks, but typically can fit several people. They have been used for artistic encounters like a Washington, D.C. audience watching dancers in Havana or a San Francisco-Mexico City rock concert.

The U.N. portal will operate just through the end of the General Assembly on Saturday. After that, the Za’atari portal will connect to a portal in San Francisco starting Monday.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stopped by the portal there this week and spoke with Sidra, a 13-year-old girl who has spent two years at the refugee camp.

"I want to send a message to the world that we should end the crisis in Syria so that we can all go back," Sidra told the ambassador.

She said Sidra misses her school at home though the Za’atari camp at least has a school and Sidra is determined to keep learning "for when she can go back to Syria and try to rebuild her community."

Power said the illusion of being in the same room was strong enough that she walked over as if to touch the girl, only to find that her own shadow obscured Sidra’s image. "I forgot the technology so my shadow crowded out my ability to see her," she said.

Power spoke as Russian airstrikes added a new dimension to a Syrian civil war that has killed more than 250,000 and forced millions to flee since 2011. She said she wanted to tell Sidra and other Syrian refugees that "we are going to be working this problem until the problem has been addressed."



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