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NaTakallam: The start-up that’s changing lives of Syrian refugees

The longest Civil War.

This year marks the eighth year of the Syrian civil war. A country of over 20 million has been continuously ravaged by military operations and air strikes. More than half of the country’s pre-war population have been displaced from their homes. They have either fled to another country or have been displaced by the fighting regimes. Even today hundreds are killed on a regular basis as the internationally backed government military forces clash with the rebel militia. With blood on the streets and no source of social and economic freedom, more and more Syrians are starting their new lives in other countries.

It is difficult for Syrians to get a work permit in other countries. This makes their ability to sustain a livelihood incredibly difficult in the new country. The “refugee” tag continues to pose problems for the Syrians in spite of high levels of education in. In spite of possessing higher education degrees, many choose to pursue additional courses in the new countries to boost their employment opportunities. Added to this is the language barrier that they must overcome in order to find meaningful employment. Understandably, most Syrians find it difficult to converse with an open heart as they begin to adapt to the new culture. But all of this is slowly changing thanks to a new start-up initiative that connects people all across the world with partners for conversation. Most of which are Syrians.

Outsiders in their new homes.

NaTakallam is a start-up situated in the United States which was established in 2015. It primarily connects students across the globe with displaced Syrians, especially from Lebanon. The founder, Aline Sara wanted to learn Lebanese Arabic and not the Fusha dialect that was taught by most of the major institutions. This gave her the idea of connecting people to Syrian refugees as a means of learning languages and carrying out conversation. It provides a medium of lingual and cultural exchange, enriching both the participants. Lebanon happens to be one of those countries with the maximum number of Syrian refugees. Currently, every 1 in 4 people in Lebanon is a Syrian. Syrians cannot get work-permits in Lebanon easily.

Back in 2014, Lebanon’s refugee situation was worsening at an alarming rate. Syrians were flooding into the country in really high numbers and most of them found it difficult to find a job or even manage a work permit. Sara had just completed her Masters and was about to go out into the rigorous world of job hunting. Her own hardships reminded her of the plight of Syrians. She realized that job hunting was a luxury compared to what the refugees were going through. It was then that she came up with a brilliant plan to leverage the economy of the internet and combine language services with refugee support.

She entered two competitions held by the UN in order to secure funds for her project. But when the pilot of her efforts and initiatives went viral; Aline was finally able to establish her website. In spite of the initial hiccups, her project has been globally successful. The project has paired over 100 displaced refugees with about 1800 Arabic students situated in about 65 countries, accruing over $230,000 in revenue for the Syrian refugees. There are students from countries like Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, USA and Uzbekistan among others. Many wish to master Arabic languages so that they can work in the Middle East for professional and humanitarian reasons. It initially began as a means for providing Syrians with a means of income, now the project is continuously achieving new heights. It has also started to play a significant role in refugee resettlement.

Till now, more than 30 Syrian conversation partners and over 900 individuals worldwide have been connected over this platform. The Arabic language is becoming one of the most popular languages in the world. In the United States, Arabic’s popularity has doubled over the last ten years making it the fastest growing foreign language in the country. The London based philanthropic organization Al Fanar has invested over $55,000 in order to support and scale the project. The platform is now extending its services to other languages as well.

Combining Language services with refugee empowerment.

NaTakallam’s Syrian participants are educated and wish to empower themselves through personality development and their skills. Most of the middle-class Syrians often do not receive aid and sometimes left with nowhere to go. This project aims to broaden their horizons by connecting them with the world at large and provide a sustainable source of income. Aline wishes to express that being displaced or asylum seeker is not an economic identity. The refugee crisis is a complicated phenomenon. The word refugee itself has become a cause for stigma. Sara with the launch of her new platform is showing the world that “refugees” are a diverse group of people completely capable of contributing to the new country’s economy.

The most important underpinning of this project is refugee empowerment. As Syrians are exposed to the outside world through meaningful dialogue and conversation, they build transnational relationships which greatly help in gaining confidence in a new environment and thus breaking down barriers to open communication.

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