"Those on the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis say finding work in new places will be a pivotal step forward for people who have uprooted their entire lives to escape a war that seems to have no end.
Three graduates of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs — Aline Sara, Anthony Guerbidjian and Reza Rahnema — are trying to make that job hunt less daunting through a startup they call NaTakallam."
“The most important part of this project is the communication between different cultures because there is a big rift between East and West — especially in Syria. I want to show the world that we, Syrians, are a wide range of people — artists, writers, sculptors, lawyers, engineers."
"As the world faces one of the largest refugee crises in history, a growing number of initiatives are harnessing the talents and cultural heritage of refugees, which have the potential to enrich the lives of others."
"In addition to benefitting Syrians in need of work, part of the appeal of NaTakallam is giving language learners a chance to interact in colloquially spoken Arabic — something often lacking in U.S. language courses teaching classical Arabic.
“Frequently, people who study in the United States will go to Jordan, to Lebanon, and they’re speaking pretty much a Shakespearean version of Arabic,” Sara explained. “There’s an increase in demand for the spoken version of the language.”
"For the refugees, NaTakallam offers a path toward the minimum wage or more–which is particularly significant for refugees in Lebanon, who are often not allowed to work. But when Sara sent a survey around the 55 refugees currently employed as “conversation partners” through NaTakallam in January, she learned that the most important aspect of the startup 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.”
"Of NaTakallam’s current roster of 25 to 30 conversation partners, most are in Lebanon, where over one million Syrian refugees reside. The company partnered with the Beirut-based nonprofit Sawa for Development and Aid to find the first instructors in the region, then expanded to more refugee communities. There are an increasing number of NaTakallam teachers in France and Germany, and individuals in Turkey, Egypt, and Brazil."
"NaTakallam (“We Speak”) is a web service which helps Syrian refugees earn extra income — at times as much as the local minimum wage — by tutoring Arabic students. The project has won recognition and grants from social venture competitions."
"The group started in Lebanon, which has the highest refugee concentration of any country. Over 1.5 million displaced Syrians currently live in Lebanon, a high percentage of whom are educated professionals, in need of work. Partnering with Sawa for Development and Aid to help recruit “Conversation Partners,” and just recently a Lebanese partner arcenciel, they now have 25+ Syrians teaching around 400 students around the globe every week via Skype."
"A tiny fraction of those connected to the entrepreneurial community, is however, acting to mitigate the worst consequences of the crisis, be it on a small scale. Among them are the founders of NaTakallam, an online network connecting Syrian refugees with Arabic language students from around the world, which lets the refugees earn a small living in exchange for language lessons."
"NaTakallam is a for-profit business, but the aim is to tackle social problems usually left to nonprofits.
It’s one thing to give to an aid organization — to give food, to give money to the community, but you’re a passive recipient to aid. What NaTakallam does is we’re giving them jobs. [The refugees are] the ones who are helping the students. It’s flipped in that sense.”
"NaTakallam aims to provide an alternative to the exploitative labour conditions and high unemployment rates - or at the very least, a supplementary income - by offering fair wages and scheduling flexibility."
"In my hour with Hosam, we inevitably talked about Syria, why its peaceful upraising took the turn it did and what the world could do to help. Hosam told me he enjoys talking to people from many different countries and that he feels that part of his mission is to educate them about Syria, countering stereotypes that all Syrians are extremists or that they are all victims."
"NaTakallam pays close attention to creating a good match between conversation partners. "We don't want to become an automized platform," Sara says. She and her co-founders seek out Arabic speakers with teaching backgrounds and then individually match them with conversation partners based on interests and experiences. For instance, they'll team a journalist or human rights worker who wants to learn Arabic with an activist. "There's a human touch and we're very attached to it," Sara says. "I think it adds to the experience."
"For language learners, it’s an opportunity to practice conversational Arabic, which is often left out in U.S. classes. Most language courses focus on classical Arabic."
“It’s a nice way to be in your bedroom in Brooklyn and talk to someone who’s in the mountains in Lebanon who can share your story, but also help you practice your Arabic.”