Portals Project connects Detroiters with people around the world

Posted at 7:00 AM, May 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-24 09:47:06-04

One second you’re in Detroit, the next you’re in a country half a world away. It could be Afghanistan, Gaza, Mexico, Germany or even Myanmar — the Detroit Portal has literally taken people across the all across the globe in a matter of days.

At this point you may be asking: ‘What exactly is a portal?’

The portal is a large audio/visual technology infused shipping container that’s been placed in Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. The equipment is used to beam images and sound from other portals around the world, allowing strangers to meet and share stories, their history, and truly make the world a smaller place. The large gold-colored box has drawn a lot of attention.

When 7 Action News showed up to interview Ber-Henda Williams, the curator for the Detroit site, construction workers nearby had taken turns approaching the box to read the caption on the side - several asking what had been placed in the park.

That’s great news for the Portals Project, as Williams explained the idea of how it gets people talking.

“The idea is that conversations are unifiers,” said Ber-Henda Williams, the curator for the Detroit site. “The idea that a random stranger can strike up a conversation with anyone and see a lot of similarities, and just bring humanity a little closer.”

Adam Horn walked into the portal early Tuesday morning — he admitted he wasn’t sure what to expect. He quickly struck up a conversation with two men in Berlin: Omar Alshafai and Karam Yahya.

“This is amazing,” said Horn. “I didn’t know what it would be like, but I’m going to tell my co-workers about it.”

Yahya is from Greece and is going to school in Berlin. Alshafai is a Syrian refugee who ran away from home to avoid joining the army — he said he didn’t want to kill people, so he had to leave. His travels took him from Syria to Beirut, Algeria, and Tunisia. He traveled in a cramped boat and had to be rescued near Italy. Next he went to Austria, Germany and to Denmark eventually finding his way back to Berlin.

Alshafai, a chemical engineer, said he is a refugee but that doesn’t define him as a person. He got involved in the portal project as a curator much like Williams, but didn’t share his story until recently.

“It makes me heartbroken sometimes to remember these horrible things,” said Alshafai.

He added, “It will make me happy to help others, and to just tell the others who the Syrian refugees are.”

Horn, the Detroiter who met Alshafai, is one of the hundreds across the globe who had that chance.

Not all the stories shared are on the scale of Alshafai’s. For instance, one day this week a group of entrepreneurs in Detroit met with a small business group in Mission, Texas. It was part of a local tie-in to the ongoing Detroit Startup Week where Quicken Loans and WeWork will be investing $2.5 million in local entrepreneurs.

Later this week a group of deejays from Detroit will be meeting with deejays and techno artists from Mexico City. Other meet-ups will be completely random.

“People who ordinarily wouldn’t come together are meeting in here,” said Williams. “They’re sharing real human emotion.”

Portals are in a variety of places across the world including: Afghanistan, Honduras, Iraq, Jordan, Germany, and Rwanda. Translators help parties communicate when there is a language barrier. Since the launch in 2014, Portals has connected more than 40,000 people around the world in one-on-one dialogues.

President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry and a number of other people have taken part in the Portals project.

The Detroit portal is going to be in Capitol Park through June 9th. You can sign-up for a 20-minute window through their website. There are also positions for those who want to be part of the volunteer staff. You can find information on signing up, or volunteering here: