In Harsham Camp on the outskirts of Erbil, there’s a window on the world — and it’s painted bright gold.
The displacement camp is home to a Portal – a space where immersive audio visual technology allows people from all over the world to virtually meet and share ideas. When you step into a Portal, you feel as if you are in the same room as the other person. Portals are a global initiative run by Shared Studios.
Portals are usually made in shipping containers, but in Harsham Camp, UNICEF Iraq and partner Terre des Hommes improvised, creating the Portal in a disused pumping station with equipment donated by Shared Studios.
The Portal underwent a dramatic upgrade as UNICEF prepared to connect Ali Ismail, a young entrepreneur from Baghdad, to a special Portal at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Silicon Valley, California.
The man on the other end of the videoconference would be the President of the United States, Barack Obama speaking to people in four other Portals across the world. Or at least we hoped so.
Would the President keep his appointment? Or would he be called away by important affairs of state? Would our much-needed Portal upgrades be ready in time? Would our internet connection in the camp be adequate for a five-way videoconference?
The UNICEF team and Terre des Hommes worked on Portal renovations, including re-painting inside and out, installing air conditioning, establishing a temporary Wi-Fi connection, and upgrading our equipment. Ali, the young man on our end of the Portal, also had to be convinced to fly to northern Iraq, meet with complete strangers, and prepare to have a chat with the President of the United States.
UNICEF hired camp residents, who have been displaced from Mosul for more than two years, to help with the renovations. We carpeted the walls and installed a floor to ceiling viewing screen so that Ali and President Obama could speak as if they were in the same room. Ali flew to Erbil just a day before the connection.
“We were on a knife edge,” said UNICEF Iraq Chief of Communications, Jeffrey Bates. “This was a unique opportunity to showcase some exciting and positive news from Iraq for a global forum.”
“I was very nervous about talking to the President,” Ali said, laughing. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
Ali, 24, is the founder of FikraSpace, a Baghdad-based initiative that supports Iraqi entrepreneurs—Fikra is Arabic for ideas. Founded four years ago, FikraSpace has 5,300 members and has helped launch seven start-ups in Iraq.
48 hours before the Portal connection, the team was painting, hammering, installing equipment, and reviewing possible lines of discussion with the President. The team spent all night at the Portal doing technical checks, fixing equipment and practicing what to say to the President.
Four young entrepreneurs were chosen by Google and the White House to present their entrepreneurial projects via Portals at Google campuses around the world; the other three connected from Seoul, London and Mexico City.
On the day of the Portal meeting, nerves were frayed but hopes stayed high. Equipment was triple-checked, Internet connections re-tested, and plans B, C, and D ready for any unforeseen event.
As the team waited, Ali practiced his remarks and the technical checks continued.
Then the voice of President Barack Obama echoed through the Portal speakers and there he was—life size and looking Ali straight in the eye!
“The US government, as a matter of foreign policy, places a great emphasis on how we help young entrepreneurs around the world,” Mr. Obama said. He spoke with one of the other entrepreneurs, then said “Ali, tell me about yourself…”
Ali, with a smile stretched across his face, shared the history of his startup with the President and said that despite the challenges facing the country, Iraqi entrepreneurs were eager to connect with the outside world.
“I see Baghdad as an open and dynamic city with a lot of young people who want to start their own business and who deserve the attention of foreign investors,” he said.
Prior to his virtual meeting with President Obama, Ali held a seminar with young people living in Harsham camp to help encourage them to find support to develop their own entrepreneurial ambitions. “I think it’s important to create networks so that you have like-minded people whom you can bounce ideas off,” he said.
When asked by the President what would most help entrepreneurs in his situation, Ali said it would be beneficial to be able to have role models, particularly from other countries facing security risks.
“It’s a tough environment sometimes to get something started, but the young talent is there and wants to be a part of rebuilding an Iraq that’s for everybody,” President Obama said.
“The four of you are extraordinarily impressive and I’m glad that I had the chance to talk to you almost in person. I want you to continue to believe in yourselves, and your companies and your efforts,” President Obama said to close the meeting.
As soon as the connection was over the entire team cheered and Ali almost fell over. We had done it, despite the odds and immense effort required in such a short time – UNICEF Iraq, Shared Studies and Ali had connected in a Portal to the White House!
Jeffrey Bates is Chief of Communication for UNICEF Iraq
Chris Niles is an Emergency Communication Specialist, UNICEF Iraq