The greatest challenge faced by Syrian refugees upon arrival in a safe country is finding work. With high unemployment levels across the Middle East and stiff competition in Europe, the “refugee” label continues to pose difficulties for Syrians fleeing war and conflict, despite the fact that many are highly educated.
In 2015, Abdelkader from Aleppo found himself in such a situation upon arriving in Germany. He has a Master’s degree in telecommunications from Syria, but he still enrolled on another Master’s programme at the University of Kiel in an attempt to boost his employment prospects. Although now safe and on the way to a better future, Abdelkader still felt shy to interact with people as he tried to adjust to European culture.
However, all of that changed when he joined NaTakallam, an Arabic teaching platform that pairs foreign students with conversation partners around the world, all of whom are Syrian refugees.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Before starting NaTakallam I had a fear about meeting people from different cultures. I was shy. Now, though, I’m more self-confident, I know how people think; it’s easier to make friends and be more social.”
Based in the US, NaTakallam connects students all over the world with displaced Syrians, mainly in Lebanon, as well as the rest of the Middle East and Europe. It was established in 2015 by Aline Sara, who had just finished her Master’s in International Affairs when her desire to practice her native Lebanese Arabic, as opposed to the fusha dialect taught by many institutions, sparked the idea of pairing with Syrian refugees.
“It was 2014, the situation in Lebanon was really getting bad with the refugees because we were hitting really high numbers, and it’s funny because I actually hadn’t completely grasped that not all of the Syrians in Lebanon are given work permits,” Sara explained. “It was a realisation at the time, when I had just completed my Masters and I was going to move on into the world, and job hunting is depressing. But then there was the sudden realisation that if I were Syrian and in Lebanon right now, I would not have the luxury of job hunting.”
It would take another year for NaTakallam to launch. After entering two competitions in an attempt to secure funding, it was when a pilot of the initiative went viral that Sara was able to facilitate the development of the website. Despite the initial difficulties, the project has met with widespread success. It has paired almost 100 displaced people with over 1,800 Arabic students in more than 65 countries, generating over $230,000 in income for Syrians across the globe.
The programme’s students hails from countries as diverse as Argentina and Japan to New Zealand and Uzbekistan. Many will want to practice their conversational skills in order to work in the Middle East in the future, often in the humanitarian sector. “These students wanted to help people from my country, so at least I can give a hand,” said Abdelkader. And the programme does not just attract young professionals. “One of my American students is maybe 50 years old and she went afterwards to the camps in Greece to help refugees.”
For Abdelkader, the learning experience is a two-way street: “It was actually useful for both of us. Not only did they learn about our culture, but also I learn. When they try to speak in Arabic about their culture, I also learn a lot from them.”
Whilst the platform originally started as a way to provide displaced Syrians with an income, the project is constantly reaching new horizons, and has often played a role in sponsoring refugee resettlement.
“We have a few of our language partners who are resettled in Italy and we are able to support them, because it’s like when you apply for a job or a college application; every added comment is going to help them and be that extra push to get them through that ridiculous maze and never-ending process of trying to get resettled,” Sara told me. “It’s an indirect consequence but we are happy to do it… I even have some students who are in Canada and they are like, ‘Yeah I’m helping my language partner with their paperwork for Canada’; it’s the more subtle details of the human connection.”
The organisation has also served to break misconceptions about the nature of the refugee struggle. Most of NaTakallam’s conversation partners are highly educated and seek to empower themselves through their skills. Middle class Syrians are often not the recipients of humanitarian aid and so the project serves to connect them to the outside world and provide them with a means of income.
Sara is emphatic that being a refugee, an asylum seeker, a person in exile or a displaced person is not an economic status. “You can have all levels of economic status and this is one of the things we’re trying to make people realise. I’ve really grown to dislike the word refugee actually. We are really trying to show the world the complexity of the refugee issue.”
Abdelkader agreed, but is hopeful that the narrative on refugees is changing: “When I first came from Germany, people would say, ‘Oh you’re from Syria, you are here to take money from the government. We are paying taxes and you are taking money.’ I can say that all Syrians have experienced this, but I think the situation is changing when you see how refugees are involved in industry, companies and any field of study.”
At its core, NaTakallam succeeds where other refugee empowerment programmes do not by connecting Syrian refugees to wider society. As conversation partners build transnational relationships with their students, they gain in confidence, breaking down the barriers to communication.
“The most amazing thing we are seeing when we survey the Syrians working on our platform,” Sara pointed out, “is that what they value the most is the connection to the world, and their interaction with students from everywhere, from Australia, Latin America, of course Europe and the US, so it is building bridges that would probably never have interacted before.”
NaTakallam has made great progress since its launch less than three years ago, but for Sara there is still more progress to make, particularly in encouraging schools and institutions to make use of the platform. “Professors have the power to tell their institutions that they want to use NaTakallam in their classroom, and we are starting to see that happen a lot more. But if I could convey to professors and teachers how much they could actually influence the lives of their students and these displaced people by making this a part of their curriculum … it really brings the subject to life.”
Abdulkader is grateful for the opportunity to be a part of NaTakallam, but like so many refugees, his aspirations for the future are still rooted in Syria.
“I would like to thank NaTakallam because it gives us the opportunity to meet people and to help people know more about our culture and our language,” he added. “It helps us to strengthen relations and helps people to know about what pushed us to come to Europe. We are not here to have fun; we fled from the war… But absolutely at the end of the war we are going back to our country to aid in the reconstruction of Syria.”