Learn a language, empower a refugee

NaTakallam connects refugees around the world with people who want to learn or practice languages such as Arabic, Persian, Spanish and French.

by Aisiri Amin

Aline Sara, founder of NaTakallam. ©Natakallam

Over 70 million people have been forcibly displaced around the world. There are 26 million refugees and out of these only about 92,000 have been resettled.

Moreover, for the refugees trying to build a new home in a foreign place, life continues to be an everyday struggle. For instance, most of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon who fled their country’s eight-year civil war lack official work authorisation and legal status.

Without a job, they are pushed to poverty and lack access to basic needs. A young Syrian refugee, Ghaith lives in Beirut where he is officially not allowed to work. But how will Ghaith rebuild his life without the security of job or a home.

For many refugees like Ghaith, NaTakallam was the hope they had almost given up on. Founded in 2015 by Aline Sara, NaTakallam (“we speak” in Arabic) connects displaced persons around the world with learners who want to learn or practice a language from a native speaker.

Ghaith is one of the many teachers who is part of the US-based start-up. Each session costs $15. Along with language practice, NaTakallam is breaking barriers and building bridges.

We talked to Aline Sara about her startup, empowering refugees and her inspiring journey.

INKLINE: Was there a moment of epiphany that led you to start NaTakallam? 

ALINE SARA: I’m Lebanese, born and raised in New York, therefore Arabic somehow took the back seat in my language skills. Beyond the language, my co-founder and I started NaTakallam due to the realization that refugees face tremendous difficulties to access the local job market, while at the same time having certain unique skills to offer that are greatly in demand.

At that time, I was living in NY and looking for an affordable way to practice and to improve my conversational Arabic skills. As a Beirut-based journalist who’d covered the refugee situation in Lebanon, following the Arab uprisings; I was well aware of the situation for Syrian refugees, who are barred from the local economy. I had the idea of hiring refugees as online conversation partners for language practice through the gig economy. 

Ultimately, refugees are forced digital nomads and should benefit from this new phenomenon.

I: Every other second, there is someone who is displaced from their home. Along with that trauma, they face economic challenges. NaTakallam focused on bettering the economic situation of refugees. 

What made you focus on this? Could you also talk about why economically empowering refugees is a crucial aspect of supporting them?

A: NaTakallam was born with the idea that refugees/displaced persons can serve as one-on-one tutors. By doing so, they get access to an income, a restored sense of dignity and purpose, friendships.

While the most basic and obvious layer of the work is income access, teaching one’s language and making friends has a critical importance at the psycho-social level. Being a language instructor and being able to teach and give something back is empowering for individuals who have often lost their agency, and are left idle.  

NaTakallam provides work opportunities for refugees around the world. ©Natakallam

 The displaced persons we support are coming from a range of backgrounds—lawyers, architects, dentists, artists, engineers, teachers, and more. In countries like Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Colombia, Argentina.

Most of them do not have access to services from NGOs that are traditionally operating in camps. The majority of the world’s refugees are in fact urban refugees trying to make ends meet on their own; that is where NaTakallam is able to play an impactful role.

I: Today, NaTakallam has become more than language-learning, it’s about promoting cultural understanding. In the world that we live, perceptions and assumptions precede experience. 

How important is to build these intercultural bonds to ‘break the walls and builds the bridges’, as you say on your website?

 A:  Our global leaders and media are painting a bleak image of refugees, especially those from the Global South, which feeds into negative stereotypes, and leads to countries closing their borders and turning their backs on the displaced. The political rhetoric today strongly uses refugees and migrants as scapegoats rather than fostering global dialogue and peaceful understanding.

Thus, now more than ever, initiatives like our cultural exchange sessions are needed. Getting to meet a refugee/displaced through a screen at your university/school classroom or even at your office, not only raises awareness about what it is like to be a refugee/displaced person, but it also minimizes, if not eliminates, the demonising image disseminated through the mainstream media and political streams.  

I: How did you go about reaching out to the refugees with your idea? 

 A: To begin connecting with refugees, we emailed friends, journalist friends and people in NGOs with a Middle East focus, trying to recruit students and teachers.

Our recruitment process became a somewhat word of mouth phenomenon and then all of a sudden, towards the end of August 2015, it seemed it was going a bit viral within the Middle East oriented community. As we moved forward, recruitment is done through referrals from the organizations we are partnered with, or through individuals who apply by sending us their CV and paragraphs of interest.

I: What have been some of the challenges that you have faced during this journey?

A: Founding and launching an enterprise, regardless of whether it is for-profit, non-profit, humanitarian, or even purely tech-oriented, is always a challenge; because you are building something from scratch, play all the different hats at the beginning, and you are basically struggling to survive. So, you find yourself in a permanent existential crisis. 

Adding to it the fact that NaTakallam is doing something unprecedented, mainly using the gig economy to provide income to refugees, regardless of their location and status (though now this has become more common, back in 2014-2015 this was very new). It does make for tricky and complicated challenges.

Beyond language learning, through their service NaTakallam is making the world smaller and perceptions wider. ©Natakallam

The fact that we are working with a population that is portrayed so negatively in the media and political spheres means that we are, even though we should not be, considered political and we have often lost competitions due to people having negative views of refugees. Thus, again reinforcing why we need to keep doing the work we do.

Balancing the fact that we need to grow and become a sustainable enterprise, at the same time trying to be as humanitarian as possible is a challenge. We do find ourselves often torn between being rational and focused on growth and sustainability while trying to be attentive to the needs of all the people we support. So, there is a lot of different areas that have been challenging, but it has been something that we have been able to navigate given that we are still here. 

I: What has been the most uplifting part?

 A: I’d say the most uplifting part is seeing how the impact of NaTakallam goes beyond creating income opportunities for refugees/displaced persons. Several conversation partners have mentioned that the friendships they made have been even more powerful than the income they have been making and that through NaTakallam, they have traveled the world virtually. 

Some of our conversation partners have been resettled or were able to get a job through the connections they formed through NaTakallam. The impact is twofold; as several of our students have contacted us to see how they can help in the process of resettling their conversation partners. To be able to witness and be behind the forming of the connections and friendships is definitely an uplifting aspect to the work we do.

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