Natakallam is an online platform with a simple opportunity for Syrian refugees and language learners alike, using the internet to connect refugee teachers with anyone looking to learn Arabic. With an estimated 11 million people fleeing Syria, the global refugee situation leaves many skilled people out of work, or legally unable to work, across the globe. Yet Damascus used to be the world's Arabic-learning hub. Realizing this, Lebanese-American Aline Sara and Iranian-French Reza Rehnema set about developing the non-profit project.
"We aim to create and be an organization that connects Arabic learners and Syrian refugees, like the Uber for language learners," says Sara. And not only is it providing teaching and learning opportunities, it's promoting cultural understanding.
She explained to BECAUSE how the idea came about. Growing up in New York, Sara struggled to learn Arabic as a second language. "It's a hard language if you don't learn it from the beginning." But many of the jobs she was applying for required strong Arabic skills. When she was searching for classes, she realized that most courses available taught fusha, or classical Arabic, rather than the local variants that people use on a day-to-day basis. Speaking fusha, one barely blends in; for comparison, imagine talking in Shakespearian English in New York today. Classes were also far out of many people's price range.
"I simply wanted to practice speaking the dialect," she says. "I knew that if I was in Lebanon, it would be much easier to have access to tutors who would help with the dialect. I was in this 'job hunt' phase that so many of us know so well, and I was struggling … but then I couldn't help but think about the refugees and how it must feel to not even be allowed to job hunt."
Natakallam gained interest in several competitions, but the path to making it a success has been challenging. "Nevertheless, people were always encouraging and interested in the idea," she says. "We launched a pilot [as part of a competition entry] in July 2015. Back then, we had ten students and five Syrian teachers."
Even though they didn't win, Sara and Rehnema started to share the website informally with family and friends. "The website kind of went viral, and in a week we had 5000 shares and 100 people signed up and we weren't even ready for it. This all happened when people were finally coming to terms with the level of severity of the refugee crisis."
Natakallam offers the lessons at US $15 an hour, which drops to US $14 or 13 if you buy five or ten hours respectively. The teachers get US $10 dollars an hour either way. Today, they have 850 students and 25 Syrian teachers. The students are from all over the world but are mainly in Lebanon, Germany and France.
As a non-profit project with numerous volunteers, funding is still a challenge. "Getting funding is also not easy. [...] We try to focus more on working with NGOs and impact investors," says Sara.
Another challenge is connected to the geographic distances between learner and teacher. They work at "ensuring people understand that some refugees are working in difficult situations, such as with frequent electricity cuts in Lebanon. Also, working in different time zones is never easy."
Yet this very set of differences are part and parcel of one of Natakallam's most important impacts: cultural connection.
Sara feels strongly about the rhetoric that is being used to stereotype and demonize refugees. "They are simply people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and their lives have been turned upside down," she reasons. "The people that suffer are the refugees, because of all the discussions in the media. Many politicians make inaccurate generalizations for political ends. Natakallam is an option for people to go away from all the media talk and false information and the shallow understandings of the word 'refugee' and to get to know the people who have been displaced, directly from the source."
Currently Natakallam is discussing partnerships with universities, and they are also planning to add lessons for children, as well as translation services.
For now Natakallam is only focused on Syrian refugees. "As a startup, we have to be very specific and after we master our initial offerings, then we can add variations. When we grow we will expand to other languages and to include other nationalities of refugees," says Sara.
Andrew Haas, a 7th grade literature teacher from Denver, Colorado, is a student at Natakallam. Hass learned Arabic in Cairo and Bethlehem years ago, but with time he almost forgot all of it and he didn't have the time to attend classes.
"I desire to learn Arabic out of a passion for peace and reconciliation," he said. "During college, I spent a great deal of time hosting events on campus focused on fighting Islamophobia in the States and promoting understanding between Christians and Muslims. My interactions with my Middle Eastern neighbors inspired me to learn Arabic. I also desire to help provide education for the growing population of Syrian refugee children, and needed to develop my Arabic skills in order to communicate with them not only on an educational level, but also cultural level. Speaking another person's language shows that you care."
Natakallam provides language learners with "a conversation partner who cares," Hass says. "So many Arabic programs teach students how to read and write Arabic, but they fail to teach students how to speak it. Natakallam gives people the opportunity to practice Arabic with professional Syrian educators. It's genius."
One-to-one teaching offers much greater attention to individual needs than group classes. "My tutor, Feras, worked as a high school English teacher in Syria for six years before moving to Germany due to the conflict. He doesn't waste a second of our hour long conversations. He takes the time to correct my pronunciation even if that means kindly stopping me 10 times until I get it right."
On opposite sides of the computer screen, it's not just language connections that are made. "We both enjoy a cup of coffee and a lot of laughter," says Haas. During our lessons, Feras has taught me both about Middle Eastern culture and, unintentionally, about his life as a refugee. At the end of one of our first lessons, Feras apologized if he had seemed tired. To be honest, I hadn't noticed. He then explained that he had spent 12 hours in a room that day waiting for a job interview, and had arrived back at home minutes before our lesson. It's rough beginning life in a new country, and his dedication to me as his student inspires me to give my best.
"Natakallam connects lives in meaningful ways worlds apart ... I now feel like learning Arabic isn't just about me and my desires, but also about Feras and his passion for teaching. I feel like I'm part of something much bigger than myself."
Photo: Darla دارلا Hueske// CC BY-ND 2.0