Arabic language startup helps Syrian refugees find hope, income

Called ‘NaTakallam’, meaning ‘we speak’ in Arabic, the website allows people from all round the world to practice Arabic and connect with Syrian refugees

Tarek Ali Ahmad
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A new U.S. startup aims to help get struggling Syrian refugees back on their feet by trading their Arabic language skills for cash has been gaining ground, its creators say.

Called ‘NaTakallam’, meaning ‘we speak’ in Arabic, the website allows people from all round the world to practice Arabic and connect with Syrian refugees – many whose host countries' policies make it difficult for them to work legally.

“Not only would you be practicing the Syrian dialect, but you’re also hearing the story of your conversation partner, and you're developing a friendship - you're getting direct exposure to what they're coming from,” Aline Sara, NaTakallam’s founder, told Al Arabiya English.

NaTakallam’s three creators, who graduated from Columbia University in New York and have Middle Eastern roots, say that so far they have signed up around 25 Syrian conversation partners, and hope for more funding to expand.

As well as helping refugees to survive by making money - a sum currently set at $15 for an hour of tuition - the platform also gives participants a sense of purpose.

“You can give them [refugees] money and food and shelter but that only goes so far - it is also important to provide them with something to do and a reason to be,” she added.

Rasha Jamal Ishak, who was studying English literature in Syria before fleeing to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli when war broke out, now works as one of the platform’s ‘conversation partners.’

After hearing about NaTakallam through a friend, she said she signed up to benefit herself both financially and mentally.

(Screengrab of the NaTakallam website)
(Screengrab of the NaTakallam website)

“It’s really difficult to find work as a refugee, every time we look and search for work we don’t find any, and they look down on us as people who do not have the qualifications and are of a lower standard.”

Getting to the source

Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who are estimated to number at over 1.5 million, now make up around a fifth of the population.
Almost all Syrians of working age in in Lebanon, who make up around 60 percent of the total Syrian refugee count, find themselves in informal, unstable and low-end jobs.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, around 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, while roughly 5 million have sought asylum in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Not only are these people watching their country go to complete shambles - they probably have family still stuck there [Syria], they are scarred by what they have seen, lived, lost,” Sara said.

“Even for the average person, being stuck with nothing to do with your skill set is extremely difficult, as I am sure anyone who has job hunted can relate to,” she added.

Common dialogues between both parties range from arts to literature to everyday life.

“There is a significant intercultural component to ‘Natakallam’ that really gets you to the people directly, unfettered by any outside interference which is a huge problem today,” the founder told the news agency.

“The Syrians are excited to show the world that they’re not ‘Daesh’ or helpless refugees, as often portrayed through the monochromatic image of refugees in the media.”

Ishak, the refugee, said that the platform “is giving me importance as someone educated and who worked hard and in the end I could use my education to do something beneficial.”

Bonds between tutors and pupils are commonly warm, due to the platform’s loose structure and informal vibe.

“Now I have friends from all over the world,” she said.

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