Empowering Refugees Through Tech

An Interview with Aline Sara

On April 7th 2020, ICTC spoke with Aline Sara, the Co-Founder and CEO of NaTakallam, an award-winning social enterprise that connects refugees and displaced people to remote work opportunities in language teaching. In this interview, as part of ICTC’s new Technology and Human Rights Series, Kiera and Aline discuss the global refugee crisis, the role of technology in facilitating new forms of work, access to livelihoods and social connections, and the thrills and challenges of tech-based social enterprises.

Kiera: Thank you so much for joining me, Aline! It’s great to ‘virtually’ meet you. To begin, can you tell me a little about your background and how you ended up where you are today?

Aline: I’m Lebanese, born and raised in New York, and my parents came to the U.S. at the height of civil war in Lebanon. Even though my parents were leaving a country at war, they came as “immigrants,” not refugees. If my parents were going through what they went through 30 years ago today, we would probably be refugees, struggling to be welcome anywhere, which is always a sobering thought. I grew up in New York City, attended a French school, and have always been immersed in languages and cultures; I spoke French and English fluently, though Arabic took the back seat. With interests in social justice and human rights, I studied philosophy and psychology in college and then moved to Lebanon after graduating. I spent several years in the Middle East doing human rights work, conflict resolution, and as a journalism with a small Lebanese publication during the Arab uprisings. A lot of my reporting there was about human rights, freedom of expression, social movements — all led by many Arab youth members who would then become “refugees.”

In 2012, I moved back from Beirut to NYC to do my Master in International Affairs, focusing on conflict resolution, human rights, and advocacy and communication. I didn’t know anything about the social enterprise or tech world, but when I graduated, I didn’t have a job lined up and it was a particularly terrible time in the Syrian conflict (in 2014). I was watching the headlines, seeing the situation in both Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon is a fragile country; we had our own civil war. With a population of only 4 million, having 1.5 million Syrian refugees entering the country presented a true refugee crisis. I was aware of the horrors of fleeing the war in Syria — having read about detention, torture, human rights abuses and what youth standing up for basic rights were being met with — and now, arriving in Lebanon, they had no future. The Lebanese government doesn’t typically give Syrian refugees a right to work. What we don’t realize is how difficult it is for people who’ve fled war to get formally resettled to a country that fully welcomes them and gives them a chance to work and restart their lives. The chances for a Syrian in Lebanon to be “resettled” through official channels is less than 1%. This means if you are a Syrian refugee and have fled from Syria to a neighbouring country like Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan, it’s incredibly hard to gain status, residency, and a right to work; you get stuck in a limbo, often in camps, with no future. This is why there was this rise in migration to Europe, a flow mostly driven by Syrians crossing the Mediterranean because countries such as Germany, for example, had a policy that if you did manage to get to the country on your own and file for asylum and your case is strong enough, there’s a good change you’d be accepted. Many refugees are also trying to get formally resettled to places like Canada, because Canada provides a refugee status, a right to work, and the chance to eventually become a citizen. The vast majority of refugees, in contrast, live in limbo with no clear future.

Kiera: And so, in 2014, as a fresh graduate witnessing this crisis, you came up with an idea?

Aline: Yes, as I was watching the news, I thought there had to be a way to both help both groups — the Lebanese, to not lose so much by giving work permits out, as well as the Syrians, who need to survive and have an income, a sense of purpose and a future. I could also see myself as one of those youth protesting in the streets in Syria, given my interest in human rights and social movements; I would have become a refugee.

I had two lightbulb moments. First, I had always dreamed of going to Damascus to take an intensive Arabic immersion course — because Lebanon is an Anglo-Francophone country and many people go to Damascus to learn Arabic — and I had a moment where I realized that if I were in Lebanon right now and could not get to Damascus, I could ask a Syrian to be my tutor, providing them with income. With many years of tutoring experience myself, I also knew that tutoring can facilitate profound friendships, through the deep one-on-one relationships, which are so important because what is missing from our global landscape today is an ability to hear one another, listen to each other’s stories, listen to what it’s like to escape a war and have survived, etc. Then, that same month, I received an ad for online tutoring and realized tutoring could be done online, and had the second lightbulb moment: what about creating a program where you learn a language online from a refugee? It would be independent, freelance work — so not working in the local Lebanese economy and, therefore, outside of the restrictions on working locally — and could provide an income for refugees.

A couple of months later, I pitched the idea in a competition and we made it to the final. To be considered for the prize, we had to go from idea to implementation, so we did a pilot in Beirut. While we didn’t win the competition, we continued to share about NaTakallam on social media, and then the photo of Alan Kurdi — the boy on the shore — went viral, and it seemed suddenly everyone had awoken to the refugee crisis. People began picking up NaTakallam on social media and signing up for NaTakallam Arabic classes. That ultimately got us going — this concoction of events, public awareness and timing — and we launched without really being fully ready.

Kiera: You are now the Co-Founder and CEO at NaTakallam, a social enterprise that is leveraging technology to provide a service in the midst of the global migration crisis, which our existing resettlement and humanitarian systems have been struggling to manage. Can you tell me about NaTakallam and what it does?

Aline: NaTakallam hires refugees, displaced people, and just recently, vulnerable host communities, as online tutors, teachers, translators and virtual exchange partners. We are a remote team with members across California, New York, Paris, Beirut and Cairo. We’ve worked with over 160 refugees and displaced people in over 65 countries, and connected some 6000 people to classes or virtual exchanges sessions. We’ve been a classroom experience in more than 200 schools, partnered with more than 20 universities, and delivered translation services to 70+ organizations, including NGOs and corporations. We run on our self-generated revenue and have amassed close to $600,000 USD in grants and competition money. We work with the refugees to assess and understand the legislation in each country, but we do not work directly with governments.

NaTakallam offers three main services. First, there is one-on-one online language learning, which is now available in Arabic, French, Persian and Spanish. Called “Conversation Session,” this is for all levels and is adapted to your needs, so you can ask for what you want. We also have a structured Arabic curriculum. The second service we provide is an academic and virtual exchange program. We have partnerships with universities, mostly across the U.S., and these usually take the form of a complimentary classroom. For example, if you are studying Arabic at Berkeley, we work with the professors and they integrate language practice sessions with refugees through NaTakallam, so you practice what you are learning in real conversations. These programs can also be thematic; we’ve been integrated into classes on human rights issues, on Syrian drama and television, where we bring the experiential component. We also have programming for K-12 schools, which focuses on raising awareness at a young age around migration issues (what it means to be displaced, what it means to be forced to leave your home, etc.). We also offer this in corporate settings, in a program called “Refugee Voices.” And the final service we provide is translation, which is another remote service that can be provided by refugees who have the skillset.

Kiera: The refugees who work with NaTakallam are effectively independent contractors with a US-based organization, rather than full-time employees in their host countries, which allows them to work outside of or beyond the local restrictions in places where they are located (where work permits are difficult to attain). In this way, NaTakallam leverages the gig economy, as many tech-based startups do, to connect refugees with opportunities. Are there any problems with this gig-economy model?

Aline: “Gig economy” is such a loaded, controversial word, and in most developed countries it is coming under fire right now. But for refugees, gig-economy jobs are often the only lifeline they can get. NaTakallam was created thinking of the Lebanese context, where restrictions for refugees focus on full-time employment, so part-time work is the way around that. Of course, we would love to be able to provide full-time employment to the refugees we work with, but right now for both legal and logistical reasons, it is not doable. But it’s also interesting because a lot of refugees we speak with actually love the flexible, part-time opportunities that they have because many are parents or have just resettled in Europe and are taking courses learning the local language, etc. and working through NaTakallam on the side to sustain themselves. So while the gig economy is problematic and controversial — and rightfully so in many contexts — it is often the other way around for refugees, though this also depends on their status.

And when I say “refugees,” I am speaking here in a very loose sense — I am referring to asylum-seekers, resettled refugees, people who have no status yet, people in semi-residential situations with the government, etc. We work with refugees in various countries and every context is different.

Kiera: I presume that the refugees you reach are only those with access to technology. Are there any efforts or aims to eventually reach refugees who don’t have access to technology?

Aline: That is a great question and it leads to a question about social entrepreneurship in general. For social entrepreneurs, given the amount of need in this world and the number of problems to solve, you have to pick and choose at what level you can target impact. NaTakallam was born very much with the idea that millions of refugees are highly skilled, highly educated, highly connected people. As a startup with very limited resources, I know that I can quickly provide an income to a Syrian refugee who already has a cellphone, a laptop, and English skills and who definitely needs the income, so I’m going to target him to help immediately. These are the people we chose to target first; so we’ve chosen to focus on the millions of middle and upper-class refugees.

Of course, if NaTakallam keeps growing, we want to expand and collaborate with tech companies and NGOs on the ground to find those who are not digitally connected and help provide them with resources but, from a strategic perspective, to get NaTakallam started, we’ve had to set our limits as to what profile of people we are supporting.

Ultimately, we are a market-based solution — that’s what a social enterprise is — and there is a market need on both ends. There is a demand for language learning, and there are millions of highly skilled, digitally connected refugees, so we have chosen to operate first at that level.

Kiera: The idea of “civic tech” is that technology can be usedfor example, in startups and social enterprisesto be a positive force for civic rights, inclusion, empowerment and/or social development. In general, do you see technology in these contexts as a long-term solution or a short-term one?

Aline: Technology has a fundamental role to play, but it is not everything. Here, technology can be thought of in its most simple sense. NaTakallam was born using only Skype, Google, and Gmail — pretty basic technologies. As much as we are a tech-enabled solution, NaTakallam remains very human, and everything we do is about people, not machines. We have people, not machines, teaching languages. We dive into the nuances of culture. We foster connection and empathy. In fact, one thing that makes us stand out compared to a lot of other tech-based refugee-focused startups is our focus on human connection. When we connect students to refugees, there is an incredible ripple effect. For example, we’ve had students who connect refugees to resettlement agencies and these refugees were resettled. Other times, students connect refugees to other job opportunities and full-time job opportunities. So, while technology is the reason we exist, we believe it is very important to stay human and keep the human component central. Tech is not a solution in itself; it is a means to an end and can also be dangerous and used in the wrong ways as well.

Kiera: Does NaTakallam face any major obstacles or challenges?

Aline: The major challenges we face are the typical startup/social enterprise challenges. At a macro level, being a social entrepreneur, there are challenges because we operate with humans and are a professional services program, rather than being a business in the environmental sphere, building solar panels and green tech. We work with people and support individuals who have been through things you would not imagine. Yet at the same time, we are an enterprise, so we must be financially sustainable and, hopefully, profitable so that we can grow and do more. And this is a tough position because you are in a constant tension and balance between seeking impact and achieving sustainability. In terms of more specific challenges to NaTakallam, there are classic hurdles of finding the right supporters and ensuring we are not stretching ourselves too thin as a team. Burnout is a very real problem in our space, and a lot of my colleagues in this field struggle with it. There is also a lot of public fatigue around the refugee topic now, even though the numbers are only going to rise, so that will be tough.

Overall, though, NaTakallam has had an exciting journey so far — lots of ups and downs, but it is all very rewarding because we are directly in touch with the people that we work with, whether they are students, clients, teachers, or refugees.

Kiera: Has NaTakallam been impacted by COVID-19?

Aline: We have lost a fair amount of classroom programming because so many schools have closed and we are not a core part of the curriculum (we are an add-on). In response, we are trying to pivot, re-package, and update what we can offer, hoping that as things change, we can come back and be a very compelling opportunity for teachers who want to make their online classes engaging. For the refugees we work with, it is heartbreaking. We work with a wide variety of profiles of people, but it is very scary for some of them — for example, in Lebanon, or the Philippines — where living conditions make it practically impossible to do social distancing. Other refugees have lost their side jobs, so now there is an added pressure on us to ensure we can keep providing them with income opportunities. Overall, refugees are going to be hit hard by this crisis and are going to be extra vulnerable.

But what is exciting is that, with so many people stuck at home right now, people are actively looking to do meaningful things, spend time learning languages, etc., and we managed to double our sales on one-on-one classes last month. People are very enthusiastic about NaTakallam when they have time to learn and engage, so we are supporting this and trying to get the word out. It’s an enriching opportunity to learn a language, meet someone new and support someone. As an organization, right now, we are busy and very lucky. We were lucky to be virtual already, which many businesses are not. So, overall, for us, it is not a time to complain but a time to focus and work hard.

Kiera: Where do you see NaTakallam in the next five to ten years? What are your goals for that time period?

Aline: We hope to continue growing and to eventually become a go-to option for people who want to learn languages, teachers who want to enrich their classrooms, and companies and NGOs who need translation services.

Kiera: Thank you very much for your time, Aline! It was a pleasure to speak with you.

Aline Sara is the Co-Founder and CEO of NaTakallam, an award-winning social enterprise that connects refugees and displaced people to remote work opportunities in language teaching. NaTakallam has paired over 160 displaced persons and over 6,000 individuals in over 65 countries, and displaced persons have self-generated over $700,000 through their work with NaTakallam. Institutional partners include universities such as Duke, Columbia, and Georgetown, and private sector clients such as Ben & Jerry’s, WeWork, and Buzzfeed. Aline was a finalist for the 2019 Cartier Women’s Initiative. You can learn more about NaTakallam here.
Kiera Schuller is a Research & Policy Analyst at ICTC with a background in human rights and global governance. Kiera holds an MSc in Global Governance from the University of Oxford. She launched ICTC’s new Human Rights Series in 2020 to explore the emerging ethical and human rights implications of new technologies, including on equality, privacy and freedom of expression.

ICTC’s Tech & Human Rights Series:

Our Tech & Human Rights Series dives into the intersections between emerging technologies, social impacts, and human rights. In this series, ICTC speaks with a range of experts about the implications of new technologies such as AI on a variety of issues like equality, privacy, and rights to freedom of expression, whether positive, neutral, or negative. This series also particularly looks to explore questions of governance, participation, and various uses of technology for social good.




The Digital Think Tank by ICTC is the research and policy arm of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

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Kiera Schuller

Kiera Schuller

Research & Policy Analyst at ICTC

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