Learn Arabic And Help Save A Refugee Through A Single Socially-Minded Platform

Learn Arabic And Help Save A Refugee Through A Single Socially-Minded Platform
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NaTakallam is a connects people over Skype or WhatsApp with Syrian refugees to exchange support and knowledge

Ido Lechner, Home Editor
  • 30 may 2017

“Close your eyes, and think of the word ‘refugee’” instructs Aline Sara, a humanitarian-turned-entrepreneur who opens every conference the same way. Immediately, the mind begins drifting towards the Mediterranean, envisioning crowded camps or other such temporary settlements, rootless boats and a horde of distraught Syrians with despair in their eyes. Still, their problems seem to exist in a vacuum, far away from the countries that would turn their backs on integrating them into their culture anyways.

In retrospect, these individuals represent far more than a meager, wandering homeless population: many Syrian refugees have unique skills to offer, and a chunk of them even have a degree to back that up. To help these people out (wherever they may be in the world), Sara’s startup NaTakallam (which means “we talk” in Arabic) hopes to put some cash in their pockets by connecting them with people learning Arabic through Skype or Whatsapp, who they can teach the language to through conversation in exchange for some coin.

The benefits of the platform are twofold: first, if you were to learn the language through formalized classes, you’re most likely learning modern standard Arabic, or as Sara puts it, “…a type of Arabic which is equivalent to Shakespearean English.” While no one would fail to understand what you’re saying, you risk building a genuine connection with those who speak a more conversational version of the language (Levantine) because of an abandoned sense of authenticity; you’re essentially a foreigner who sticks out like a sore thumb.

The second, and arguably more important advantage of the business is its drive to build empathy among the non-Arabic world. For refugees, NaTakallam is an opportunity to earn minimum wage (at the very least), which is unfortunately a rare privilege among the expatriate community. Quite remarkably however, money is a secondary issue for most of these people, who Sara says after surveying the community back in January: “[the most important aspect of NaTakallam for them] is being connected to people around the world, making friends, and changing the often false and unfair narrative around what it means to be a refugee.”

Through video chat, Muslim-fearing individuals and cultural explorers alike can get a taste of the style, language and people who make up this population, and ultimately foster a relationship with individuals from halfway across the world. Nearly 5 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes since the Syrian Civil War first began back in 2011, a quarter of which now reside in Lebanon, whose government refuses to offer them work permits as it fears a tightening of its already limited job market. So, despite their education and in-demand skills, refugees living in Lebanon are forced to work odd jobs with little pay and stability, a reality that’s hard to grasp for most of the world.

Born and raised in the U.S. and of Lebanese descent herself, Sara moved to Beirut (the nation’s capital) to do humanitarian field work and brush up on her Arabic following her completion of Columbia’s masters program in its School of International and Public Affairs. It was through her immediate exposure to the dilemma, coupled with her decent-yet-lacking foundation in the language that helped her discern the gravity of the situation and inspired her to take action.

“I was just watching this situation unfold, and it was heartbreaking,” Sara tells Fast Co. “I kept thinking about what it would be like if I were one of those Syrians, and I had just graduated from my program in my home country when the war broke out, and now my country is falling apart and I’m a refugee in Lebanon. Everything I had done in my life, all my studies, were worthless now, because I couldn’t apply for a job.”

Since NaTakallam’s initial launch back in October 2015, over 1,200 Arabic learners have signed up across 80 countries, with the platform employing around 50 Syrians in 11 countries, though most of which are from Lebanon. When one signs up as a learner, they’re asked for their proficiency in the language (so as to be paired appropriately), though none of the refugees have any formal training in language instruction, as the point of NaTakallam according to Sara is to provide conversation, not a structured lesson plan.

Sara hopes that by the end of the year, NaTakallam will support twice as many refugees earning minimum wage or higher. To do so, the young founder has plans to grow the startup through various strategic partnerships and outlets, namely with Middle Eastern companies whose English-speaking employee base could be in need of improving their Arabic skills. Moreover, several universities have taken an interest in the platform—Swarthmore, George Washington, Tufts, Boston College and Northeastern to name a few—with the hopes of integrating the concept into their curriculum. While NaTakallam certainly won’t transform the world’s refugees into high-earning citizens, it does alleviate their concerns for putting food on the table. Hopefully the platform will expand rapidly so as to outpace the fear mongering happening throughout the western world, along with the starvation and various social, career and academic ceilings encountered by refugees on a daily basis.

NaTakallam

“Close your eyes, and think of the word ‘refugee’” instructs Aline Sara, a humanitarian-turned-entrepreneur who opens every conference the same way. Immediately, the mind begins drifting towards the Mediterranean, envisioning crowded camps or other such temporary settlements, rootless boats and a horde of distraught Syrians with despair in their eyes. Still, their problems seem to exist in a vacuum, far away from the countries that would turn their backs on integrating them into their culture anyways.

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