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Nada Ramadan

NaTakallam: pairing Lebanon's Syrian refugees with Arabic learners

Lebanon is currently home to more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 September, 2015

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Feature: With globally rising demand for Arabic lessons, and no shortage of Arabic-speaking refugees needing an income, an innovative project is helping to put the two together.
In the latest contribution to efforts aiming to resolve the world's worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, a new social venture is providing employment for Syrian refugees in Lebanon by pairing them with Arabic learners around the world through online conversation-focused sessions.

"A different kind of Arabic learning," reads the tagline on the homepage of the NaTakallam online platform.

According to NaTakallam founder Aline Sara, the initiative caters to a growing Arabic-learning community, while helping Syrians who fled war only to be faced with a choice between unemployment and exploitation by working in the informal sector for low wages.

Lebanon currently has the world's highest per capita concentration of refugees, with more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees - boosting Lebanon's population count by more than 25 percent.

Idea

Growing up outside of Lebanon, Sara's challenging life-long study of Arabic, combined with her concern for the humanitarian crisis in the region, inspired her to create this platform.

Sara was later joined by Beirut-born Anthony Guerbidjian, who is currently a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, and French-Iranian Reza Rahnema, who has completed his undergraduate degree in economics and international relations.
Demand for colloquial Arabic has been steadily rising
- Aline Sara


"Demand for colloquial Arabic has been steadily rising," Sara told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Modern Standard Arabic is not very practical in everyday use, especially for people working in refugee camps or for journalists, for example."

The social venture participated in a Columbia University start-up competition, making it to the second round. This encouraged Sara to take the project a step further.

"We did not want courses that cost a fortune," she explained. "On average, Arabic lessons in New York cost about $50 per hour, while NaTakallam offers around $15 for one-hour conversation sessions."

Because NaTakallam is based on a "social impact model", as described by its founder, nearly 70 percent of revenue goes to the Syrian "conversation partners", while the other 30 percent goes to NaTakallam to cover overhead costs such as IT.

"We have been able to start this venture keeping costs very low," she said, adding that the team had resorted to personal finance, and for now, was volunteering its time on the initiative.

Progress

According to the latest numbers, there are currently 55-60 students receiving weekly "casual online conversation lessons", while another 440 have signed up.

"This was all unexpected," Sara said. "We did not do any official marketing. It was all through social media."

Lessons started in mid-July. Surveys carried out by the NaTakallam team have received mostly good feedback, showing that both learners and conversation partners are happy with the sessions.

On social media, many people expressed their admiration for the "innovative" and "inspiring" initiative.

"I am happy to learn Arabic through Skype sessions with Syrian refugees in Lebanon thanks to NaTakallam," one learner tweeted in Arabic.

"This is a wonderful idea, I've been wanting Levantine Arabic conversation practice," another eager learner tweeted.

Partners

NaTakallam has partnered with SAWA, a Lebanon-based youth initiative founded in 2011 "as a reaction to the dire gap in fulfilling the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon".

We did not do any official marketing. It was all through social media
-Aline Sara

SAWA helps recruit Syrian "conversation partners" by putting them in touch with NaTakallam, who then interviews the candidates.

SAWA also offers its offices for those who do not have access to internet or computers.

"Most Syrian refugees are qualified and come from middle-class backgrounds," Sara said, explaining that in most cases, conversation partners have their own devices to take part in the online sessions.

Challenges

"For the time being, the main challenge facing NaTakallam's online courses is the electricity crisis in Lebanon," Sara said. "It affects the conversation partners' access to internet.

"Challenges also include funding, but we have not had time to properly work on that front yet, so in that sense, the biggest challenge beyond our control is electricity," she added.

Lebanon's electricity crisis is decades old, dating back to the 1975-90 civil war, which left the country in ruins and set back infrastructure development. The country has not built a new power station in more than a decade, making a night of uninterrupted electricity a rare occasion, and forcing thousands of people to resort to expensive alternatives, such as oil-fuelled generators.

NaTakallam is currently trying to keep up with a growing demand, according to Sara. They are actively moving beyond Lebanon and are in touch with Syrians in other major refugee hubs around the world, including both Europe and the rest of the Middle East.

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