Mursal Hedayat founded Chatterbox to highlight and connect the wealth of talent of refugees as foreign language tutors with learners across the world.
by Aisiri Amin
Fleeing the chaos of her war-torn country, Afghanistan, three-year-old Mursal Hedayat arrived in the UK as a refugee along with her mother. Leaving the familiarity of home and starting new in a country that will probably never accept you as one of their own is a trauma that many fail to even acknowledge. But more than two decades later, Mursal realised that along with her home, her mother had lost something else: her career.
Mursal’s mother was a civil engineer who fluently spoke four languages including English. But in the UK, she struggled to find work and when she finally did, it didn’t utilise her full potential.
The constant struggle to find work as per their skill set is a huge struggle that millions of refugees, 25.4 million of them to be precise, have to face on a daily basis.
We live in a world where nearly one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds which makes employment solutions crucial for refugee integration. But, often their economic potential and experience are buried under the widespread discrimination and stereotypical labelling of refugees as burdens.
“While growing up I had closely witnessed the struggles my mother, aunts, and uncles faced to find work despite being highly qualified engineers and nurses. I always knew that their potential hadn’t been used and they had been disappointed with that,” explains Mursal Hedayat.
But the click, the sudden bolt of passion to bring about a change, hit Mursal when she was volunteering at a refugee camp in France while on a postgraduate programme based in London called Year Here which focused on social innovation and entrepreneurship.
There she noticed that her impression of the refugee camp was very different than that of her friends. “While they saw something very alien to their everyday experience, I saw a lot of similarities between that [refugee camp in France] and other parts of the world I had visited, mainly my home of origin, Kabul, Afghanistan.”
It was through this experience that Mursal realised that having come from a refugee background, her experience gave her a different perspective compared to the Western European people who have been developing solutions for refugees so far.
“This shows in our work, we often overlook the pool of talent that exists in the refugee community: in doctors, nurses, educators, engineers and many more. I see that because I grew around that.”
From this very thought, the journey of Chatterbox began. “The idea for Chatterbox came from my background, from what I had seen and what I wanted to change,” Mursal says.
At the end of her postgraduate program, the students were encouraged to start something on their own and Mursal had her heart set on the sketch board idea of Chatterbox. “Over that summer I spoke to a number of refugee organisations to validate the anecdotal evidence that not only is there a significant amount of talent in the refugee community but that it can also be channelled into the education sector, specifically language education.”
Based in London, Chatterbox addresses the problem of underutilisation of refugee talent by matching them with an opportunity to use their language skills for employment. By tapping the recent boom in the language learning industry, Chatterbox trains and employs the refugees to teach their native languages.
In August 2018, Chatterbox completes two years with exciting language programs and an increasing number of tutors and learners.
“Our greatest strength is how integrated and involved the refugees have been in the founding of Chatterbox, in the creation of our products and in the feedback that drives changes to the product. That has really worked for us.” Since the refugees are part of the very community that they are helping, they understand the needs on a deeper level and it also adds to the credibility of Chatterbox.
“People don’t have to scratch their heads to think why our team is working on this issue because most of us are deeply affected by the struggle that we are trying to resolve and it is something that [still] continues. It is one of our core values to ensure that our team is representative of the people we are solving problems for, and that includes both refugees and language learners,” Mursal explains.
Not only is this a meaningful opportunity for the displaced people but it also helps in addressing the mischaracterization of refugees, help them integrate into their new homes and form connections.
Talking about their experience one of the learners says, “Katayoon [one of the Chatterbox tutors] helped me to adjust my more formal language into informal, everyday prose. Hopefully, next time I’m catching up with my Iranian friends I’ll sound less like a textbook and more like an Iranian.”
Moreover, learning foreign languages also has an economic impact. Deficient language skills of monolingual Britons has cost the UK economy around £48bn a year which is 3.5% of their GDP.
But helping the refugees tackle the lack of employment opportunities through language teaching is addressing only one part of the problem. Bigger, pressing changes need to happen to deal with the refugee crisis problem effectively.
“The biggest population of refugees isn’t in Europe. Not by a long shot. Refugees are most populous in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and many countries who are struggling greatly to support their new members. More countries that have the biggest shoulders should bear the cost of looking after some of our most vulnerable people. They need to shoulder more responsibility,” Mursal says.
Talking about the United States’ reluctance in taking the refugees, Mursal says, “I think the number of refugees taken in by the US (the world’s most prosperous country) is shameful. It’s shameful that countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Kenya – who are themselves working hard to support the existing communities with fewer resources are left to deal with the huge influx of refugees.
She goes to say that countries with an abundance of wealth such as the US, UK, and Japan are leaving it to the developing nations who are struggling economies to take on this additional responsibility and risk, and that is appalling.
“If there is one thing I could change, it would be to create a system to evenly distribute displaced people to countries around the world and the proportion should reflect the ability of countries to pay for the financial costs and resource needs for hosting refugees.”
Mursal strongly believes that another change that needs to happen is giving the refugees the right to work in the places where they are most populous.
“They are prevented from doing work when they stay in refugee camps and when they move to some countries like Lebanon. Work is a human right and no human should be deprived of this right,” Mursal says.
“They are really extraordinary people and they don’t need help but for a long, long time they have just been too many barriers in their way.”
She also has immense faith in the young entrepreneurs and strongly believes they can bring about the change that the world needs.
“Massive respect to generations before us and the generations still here building the infrastructure, the world we live in. Although we have a lot of prosperity, it’s unevenly distributed. It can be improved on and innovated by the young entrepreneurs. Everything from how we organise our companies to how we fund them to what they hope to achieve, financial returns or social returns, the way to each of these two things, can be changed through entrepreneurship, for the better.” Mursal says.
Quoting an example from her team she explains, “For instance, our team is structured in a very nonhierarchical [manner], which is something completely opposite to usual, traditional organisational structures.”
Mursal has just one thing to say to all the youth striving to find their place in this world: don’t be afraid to stand out.
“Have the courage to do things in the way it makes sense to you rather than doing things in the way it’s always been done.”
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).