How a language startup has connected Syrian refugees with Arabic students

When Ghaith fled Syria in 2013, he left with more than the clothes on his back.

Though refugees are commonly thought of as poor, uneducated and helpless, Ghaith, who comes from a middle-class background and was studying computer science at the University of Aleppo before the Syrian civil war, brought his education and intellectual curiosity to Beirut in 2013, where he now lives and works as a journalist and a writer.

Today, he’s able to use both — and earn money for himself — as a “conversation partner” onNaTakallam, a non-profit that pairs Arabic students around the world with native speakers who are living as refugees.

“I have time for NaTakallam and it will be great for me to fill my time, learn and benefit other students — and to get a salary that can support me in Lebanon,” he tells Mashable.

Started this year by Columbia University graduates Aline Sara, Anthony Guerbidjian and Reza Rahnema, NaTakallam seeks to support refugees and tell their stories through language lessons.

In Lebanon, which currently hosts nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest per capita amount in the world, most refugees are not legally allowed to work full-time, which leaves them susceptible to dangerous jobs and wage exploitation.

“People with degrees are stuck with few opportunities,” Sara says. “I thought it would be great if I was in Beirut and I could find tons of people who’d be happy to sit and talk with someone and get paid for it.”

Currently, NaTakallam employs 15 conversation partners who converse with 100 students. Nearly 600 people have signed up to learn Arabic on NaTakallam, Sara says, but the non-profit needs to scale up before it can handle so many users. A one-hour session costs $15, with $10 going to the Arabic teacher and $5 to help NaTakallam cover its costs.

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 students, the real-time, non-academic dialogues are both financially feasible and culturally helpful. Sara, who grew up speaking French with some English and Arabic, says that private Arabic lessons in the U.S. can be prohibitively expensive, costing as much as $50 per hour. Additionally, she says, most of the Arabic taught in Western academic settings tends to differ from the more colloquial dialect spoken on the streets of Arab cities.

“You get to Beirut, Amman or Cairo, for example, and it’s quite difficult to communicate if you’re using university Arabic,” she says.

Western conversation partners, a good number of whom studied in Damascus before the Syrian civil war, tell Sara that they’re glad to have a new way to help Syrians besides donating money.

“They’re devastated by the war in Syria,” she says. “They feel there’s so much horror and there’s nothing they can do about it, so this is their way to help.”

In addition to Lebanon, NaTakallam employs Arab-speaking refugees living in France, Turkey and Egypt, and the group hopes to soon incorporate refugees in Germany and Sweden.

While NaTakallam’s native speakers relish the job opportunity and income, they tell Sara that NaTakallam is more than a job for them.

“They are lawyers, architects and students who weren’t able to finish degrees,” she says. “They have their lives ahead of them and they don’t want to be portrayed as helpless people. This gives them exposure.”

“They want an opportunity to have face-to-face meetings and share their lives and what they do.”