Learning Arabic with Syrian Refugees

Startup Spotlight

NaTakallam has enabled Syrian refugees to teach Arabic to students around the world. It was one of the seven winners at the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees Competition in partnership with Zain and MBC Hope.


By Maya Sioufi


After graduating from Columbia University with a masters in international affairs, Lebanese-American Aline Sara who was born and raised in New York City, wanted to take Arabic classes to perfect her mother tongue. But the classes she found were either too expensive at $60 to $70 an hour or too intensive, consisting of semester long university programs.


With Syria falling apart under the effects of the gruesome war, 32-year-old Aline saw an opportunity in September 2014 to bring together educated Syrians in Lebanon, who suddenly found themselves jobless or not allowed to work legally, with students keen on acquiring Arabic skills.


“What if we hired Syrians who would accept to work for $10 an hour? It was a way to give them a dignifying job given the options they typically face in host nations,” says Aline.


Aline didn’t pursue her idea until February 2015 when she received an email from Columbia University about an entrepreneurship competition. She partnered with British-Iranian Reza Rahnema with a graduate dual degree from Sciences Po, Paris and Columbia, and submitted her idea. They made it to the second round but didn’t win. Shortly after, Aline was approached to apply for the World Bank’s Women Entrepreneurship Resilient Cities Competition. As they made it to the finals, the idea had to be launched in order to be eligible to win. And that’s how NaTakallam was established.


“We didn’t win the competition as we had just started but the competition made us launch. We ended up having a website” says Aline. That summer, NaTakallam partnered with non-profit Sawa4Syria in Beirut and reached out to five Syrians to join their pilot project. Shortly after the pilot project, NaTakallam got picked up by key bloggers in the United States and the Huffington Post contacted them.


To date, the team of five is working with 30 refugees who are earning on average Lebanon’s minimum wage and are teaching Arabic to over 900 students. They aim to employ 100 refugees by the end of next year.


This month, NaTakallam is flying the head of the Arabic department at Cornell University, Dr Munther Younes,​ from the 14th till the 17th of December to provide a training to syrian refugees working with NaTakallam in order for them to offer students a proper curriculum that could be used for credit at other officially recognized language institutes and major universities around the world.


To reach out to the refugees, “we have personal contacts and the Syrians we work with have friends they refer to us” says Aline. They have partnered with Lebanese based non-profit NGO Arc En Ciel which supports Lebanon's most underprivileged and marginalized communities. Through Arac En Ciel, , NaTakallam pays the refugees. NaTakallam has also partnered with the International Rescue Committee and Jusoor, an NGO focused on supporting Syrian youth.


To reach out to students, NaTakallam has partnered with George Washington University, Swarthmore College, the University of Boston College, Northeastern and Tufts and is actively working on developing their university partnership front. . They are expecting to sign with Duke next semester. For now, the majority of their users are from the United States, Australia, France and the United Kingdom.


NaTakallam recently won the education-led prize at the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees Competition in partnership with Zain Group and MBC Hope. The organization is now joining SINGA, an incubator in Paris focused on refugees and will be adding a French version to the site. They are looking to expand their services to the European market as well as develop their strategy for Australia. “Eventually, we want to shift to other languages besides arabic and to other refugee communities such as in Congo and Ivory Coast” says Aline.


“Our long-term dream is to engage schools around the world to provide NaTakallam as an integrated tool to complement the classroom setting [enabling] intercultural exchange and awareness raising in a world in very much need of such type of interaction and understanding” she adds.