Miley Cyrus was the first common denominator among University of Colorado Boulder students and young men living in an Iraqi refugee camp.
Apprehension looming, a handful of students from Peter Simonson's senior seminar class "Listening, questioning, speaking" walked inside a golden shipping container outside of Folsom Field on Tuesday morning. Inside, a floor to ceiling projector and a pinhole camera connected them to four refugees, most barefoot, sitting in 1,500-person camp in Erbil, Iraq.
Communications major Molly Serhan, 22, didn't know what to expect.
"I'm kind of nervous," she said. "I don't really want politics to be brought up because of what's been happening in Syria. I just don't know what to say about it."
Politics did come up, but so did favorite soccer teams, career aspirations, the horrors of fleeing war-torn cities and, yes, the pop star so infamous Rami Mohammad, curator and translator for the discussion in Iraq, said he listened to her music while everyone in both time zones giggled.
The experience was facilitated through a group called Shared Studios, which sets up the "portals" in locations across the globe, fostering discussions from Mexico to India to Afghanistan to right outside the football stadium at CU. Artist Amar Bakshi created the portal program in 2014. CU's College of Media, Communication and Information recently heard about the experience and wanted to bring it to campus.
The portal will be open at CU through May 9. One-on-one conversations can be scheduled for free at www.sharedstudios.com/cuboulder.
"When I first heard about this idea I thought, why don't we just Skype with one another?" said Jeff Motter, associate director of the communication department's BoulderTalks. "And then it occurred to me that I would never Skype with a stranger. And with the full-sized screen, it's just like you're at a bus stop. It's like there's a stranger you want to talk to because you find people interesting. It's this full-body, immersive experience where you don't feel as disconnected from people all away around the world."
The CU students were connecting with high school and college-aged men who had been displaced by the Islamic-state takeover of Mosul and surrounding regions in 2014, according to Shared Studios.
The conversation slipped between the serious and the silly, as those in the camp discussed desires to rebuild their fallen cities in one breath and rap music and Instagram in the next.
Participants lobbed easy, neutral questions at each other until CU communications major August Usry, 22, asked: "What do you guys think of Americans?"
A pause on both ends.
"The government or the people?" Mohammad asked.
"Both," Usry said.
Those in the camp leaned in toward each other, coming up with an answer that Mohammad translated.
"The U.S. government is destroying the Middle East," he said. "The people, though, they are amazing. They want to support refugees like us."
The CU students nodded in solemn understanding.
"The majority of people here would agree with you," Usry said.
While the CU seniors talked about graduating in three weeks and going off to get jobs, the men in the camp shared their desires to come to the United States some day.
Ahmad Abrahim, an 18-year-old who attends high school in Iraq, asked what was the hardest thing Americans face, and Usry admitted his own struggles were nothing compared to the ones his new companions were dealing with.
"I'm mostly concerned about school right now and graduating," Usry said. "That's my stress."
The refugees nodded. Education wasn't weighing too heavy on their minds, they said.
Forty-five minutes later, it was time for the CU class to end. As the students walked out of the shipping container, the men in the refugee camp waved and made heart shapes with their hands.
Usry said the conversation was an eye-opening experience for him.
"I had no idea that's what a refugee camp would be like, in an insensitive way," he said. "I envisioned bombs going off and things. I went in worried, and I left seeing how integrated our cultures are. It makes me care about all this a lot more."