Arabic language site gives Syrian refugees chance to earn

A website hopes to bolster the earning capacity of displaced Syrians by pairing refugees with foreign students seeking to learn Arabic

A website hopes to bolster the earning capacity of displaced Syrians by pairing refugees with foreign students seeking to learn Arabic.

NaTakallam, which means ‘we speak’ in Arabic, is a nonprofit partnership with Beirut-based NGO SAWA. The website recruits Syrians as conversation partners to help those looking to improve their Arabic skills through online dialogue.

The platform, which launched two months ago, has already attracted interest from universities looking to form partnerships, said founder Aline Sara.

NaTakallam has 50 students taking sessions so far, and some 340 more have signed up to start in September and October.

“There is a niche of students who are looking for a type of Arabic opportunity on the one hand, and Syrians in Lebanon struggling and working in such difficult conditions. For some, it could provide a much better source of income,” said Sara. “There are several reports of Syrians working well below minimum wage, in difficult black market conditions."

A Lebanese-American, Sara had recently finished her Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University when she had the idea to start NaTakallam, after failing to find a low-cost way to practice conversational Arabic.

“I thought, we have such a significant refugee crisis, with Syrians looking for jobs [many of whom] could benefit by working as a conversation partner,” she said. “ Someone who isn’t necessarily trained in linguistics but can spend an hour or two online discussing everyday life in Arabic.”

It took a few months and a number of social venture activities to get the idea off the ground, after Sara pitched NaTakallam as part of a startup competition at Columbia.

The social venture is self-funded by Sara and two other team members who work on voluntary basis, and is seeking financial backing. It currently operates through an affiliation with SAWA, which provides assistance to thousands of refugees in Lebanon.

“A lot of the middle-class Syrians that are struggling get lost in the chaos, and there’s a lot of focus on the most challenged communities that don’t have anything,” said Sara. “Most of the Syrians we are working with are individuals who were in the middle of their undergraduate studies or had just finished or were on their way to developing their career and were interrupted. Many Syrians in Lebanon are not allowed to work and face very challenging conditions.”

Sara and her colleagues plan to expand the project to include refugee communities beyond Lebanon, such as those in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan - as well as to extend it to other nationalities affected by war and conflict.

The Syrian crisis is now in its fifth year, leaving millions of refugees in need of emergency humanitarian assistance, with many caught in increasingly deteriorating conditions. Neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey – have also suffered from the influx of millions of Syrians escaping the war.