Meet the Lebanese-American Woman Whose Startup Is Getting Students and Syrian Refugees Chatting
“We can’t just keep turning our backs” on the refugee crisis, NaTakallam founder Aline Sara said.
Global Citizens of America is a series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.
In 2014, Aline Sara had just earned her master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and, like many recent graduates, was feeling demoralized by the job hunt. She decided to move to Beirut, Lebanon, and work on her Arabic language skills while searching for jobs in the humanitarian field, when she was struck with a “haunting realization.”
“What do you do when you have so many skills and you’re not even allowed to apply them?” Sara recalled thinking.
She wasn’t thinking of herself, but the millions of refugees worldwide who are “in complete limbo,” stuck in host countries that will not legally allow them to work and support their families, she told Global Citizen.
Sara was born and raised in the US, but is of Lebanese descent. She grew up speaking English, French, and Arabic, though she admits that of the three Arabic took a backseat. But she has always felt a strong connection to Lebanon and the Middle East region.
“I told myself if I were in Lebanon, I would actually connect with some Syrian refugees and have them become my language partners and I could pay them for the service as opposed to hiring a tutor,” she said.
Sara was looking to improve her conversational Arabic anyway “because that’s what you need when you’re in the field and a journalist … the Arabic you learn in the classroom, modern standardized Arabic, is not at all what you speak on the streets of Cairo or Beirut,” she said.
It was from this idea that NaTakallam — meaning “we speak” in Arabic — was born.
Sara wanted to create a conversation platform for Arabic-speaking refugees and language learners that would give refugees an opportunity to leverage their skills and earn income, while offering language learners a chance to practice colloquial Arabic.
“I actually didn’t know what social entrepreneurship meant,” she admitted. Sara’s background was in journalism and human rights, not business and management.
Suddenly, Sara — who had been wary of the startup world because “everyone has a startup now,” as she put it — found herself pitching her own venture at a Columbia University startup competition.
She and her team of fellow Columbia graduates made it past round two, but still, all they had was an idea. Undeterred, they entered another funding competition held by the World Bank.
The competition gave Sara and the budding NaTakallam team the push they needed. In order to be considered in the final round, they actually had to pilot the platform — so they did.
Though they didn’t win, Sara was determined to see her idea through, and by autumn of 2015, NaTakallam began to take off.
“Suddenly we had 150 people signed up in August,” she said. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time that photos of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose drowned body washed ashore, went viral.
“I would have never thought this would happen in Syria,” Sara told Global Citizen. “I’d been there multiple times.”
Sara’s parents are survivors of the war in Lebanon and as someone with a Lebanese background she feels compelled to do something about the global refugee crisis.
“I almost feel like I have to give back because I’ve been so privileged and lucky to grow up safely in New York, to go to a great school, and have such a peaceful life,” she said.
There are 22.5 million refugees worldwide, according to UNHCR, many of whom are stuck in a kind of purgatory while they await resettlement or rescue, overwhelming the humanitarian sector.
“And then you have political leaders who are literally accusing [refugees] of being the very people they’re fleeing from,” Sara said.
“That’s a catastrophe! That’s why we’re seeing so many people drowning in the mediterranean. If you’re willing to possibly drown — take your children onto a boat with a high-risk of drowning or just not making it — that’s how desperate you are,” a frustrated Sara added.
“We can’t just keep turning our backs on this and ignoring it.”
Since it launched in 2015, NaTakallam has employed more than 70 displaced people, served 1,500 language learners, and hosted over 15,000 hours of conversation.
The startup takes advantage of the “gig economy phenomenon” and the trend of people working remotely as “digital nomads.”
“Refugees are forced nomads, so it only makes sense to leverage the trend to support people who are displaced,” Sara said.
"We are here at a conference titled Rethinking Education; we invite you to rethink #refugees, not as people who need education, but as educators themselves. #AlineSara #natakallam founder presenting today at #wbgyouthsummit #worldbank #rethinkeducation #education4all #languagelearning #arabic #syria #syrianrefugees #refugeecrisis #innovation #socent #startup #education
All the refugees who work with NaTakallam are essentially independent contractors with a US-based company, rather than full-time employees in their host countries, for which they would require work permits that are difficult to obtain.
Lebanon hosts the most refugees per capita of any country in the world, according to UNHCR. And today, about one in six people living in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee, yet its government refuses to issue work permits to Syrian refugees, according to the Middle East Eye.
In nearby Jordan and Turkey, Syrian refugees may be issued work permits, but policies place the burden of securing work permits for refugees on employers. Meeting these requirements can be costly and may deter employers from applying for permits, according to the Brookings Institution, leaving refugees with few opportunities to work and apply their skills.
When NaTakallam launched, it focused primarily on creating opportunities for Syrian refugees to generate income in Lebanon, where the minimum wage in Lebanon was about $450 a month in 2015, according to the US Department of State’s Country Reports.
But refugees working as conversation partners with NaTakallam make $10 per hour-long Skype session, and can make well above the minimum wage with more flexible hours.
When the venture started, NaTakallam recruited refugee conversation partners through their partners in Lebanon, but as the startup has taken off, more and more refugees have independently reached out.
“Refugees are normal people who have internet access, who can see what’s going on, who can research,” Sara said. The team now receives about five applications a day from Arabic-speaking refugees around the world.
“It’s heartbreaking because you’re seeing such incredible profiles, incredibly qualified refugees who are desperate — in Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, but also all the way in India, Malaysia, Brazil — and they’re stuck in limbo.”
NaTakallam now has a partnership with Iraq-based startup Re:Coded, a coding bootcamp for refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, and has begun to look into hiring Libyan and Yemeni refugees. While the platform will continue to focus on facilitating Arabic learning, it hopes to expand to include Farsi and other language services in the long-run.
To Sara’s surprise, NaTakallam’s greatest impact has not been generating income, but rather building connections and relationships between people.
When NaTakallam started, “I was thinking about the income component,” she said. “But actually, there’s been an indirect psychosocial impact because you’re talking to someone, you’re getting to know someone, you develop friendships, so that’s been exciting for us to see happening on our platform.”
Sara told Global Citizen that several refugees made contacts through their work with NaTakallam who helped them get resettled. During the resettlement process, it is crucial for applicants to be able to list personal contacts who can vouch for them, and the conversation platform has helped some foster those relationships.
“Though it’s on a small-scale, compared to how much is needed” given the many refugees still awaiting resettlement, Sara noted.
NaTakallam has created a “window into the world” that goes both ways.
So often, refugees are portrayed as people in poverty and suffering, but many of those displaced by Syria’s civil war are highly skilled and educated people. NaTakallam’s conversation partners come from all different backgrounds, ranging from teachers to doctors and engineers all of whom are not able to work in their usual profession because of work permit restrictions.
“This is an opportunity to get people to know, one-on-one, who these people are, to change the narrative, to change the perspective, to create real connections,” Sara said. “I’m happy to be able to leverage their skills and show the world what they have to bring to the table.”
Global Citizen campaigns for the rights and equal treatment of the world’s 65 million refugees and forcibly displaced people. You can take action and stand with refugees here.