When Aline Sara, a Lebanese-American student at Columbia University, wanted to practice her Arabic, she couldn’t find the right resources in New York City.
There were plenty of classes to learn the more formal, literary form of Arabic, known as Fusha. But for more conversational Arabic and local dialects, it was a challenge to find the right instructors.
So she and two other Columbia students, Anthony Guerbidjian, and Reza Rahnema, started NaTakallam, or “We Speak”, a website that pairs Syrian refugees in Lebanon via Skype with American and other students around the world who want to practice their conversational Arabic.
“I was at a stage in which I didn’t need a professor or a book with complex grammar rules, I simply needed to practice speaking,” said Sara. “I thought to myself, I could just meet with a Syrian, have a nice chat with them, and offer them a compensation for the exchange.”
In February 2015, Sara, Guerbidjian and Rahnema entered a World Bank competition for business ventures and became semi-finalists, though they did not win. Nonetheless, what started as a pilot study for the competition took off among the Arabic-learning community by the summer.
Students and other individuals who wish to sign up for the service can fill out a questionnaire on NaTakallam’s website. Then, an administrator of the website reviews the applicant’s goals, level of proficiency, interests and preferred schedule. Finally, the applicant is matched with a Syrian in Lebanon via Skype for $15 a session.
The Syrian tutor receives $10 for his or her help, the rest goes toward operations including Internet costs and flights for the founders to Lebanon, where they find and train the Syrian refugee tutors. They also work with a grassroots youth organization in Lebanon called Sawa for Development and Aid to help recruit the teachers.
More than 1 million Syrian refugees now live in Lebanon, and of those about 70 percent live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. The refugees are not allowed to hold jobs without a work permit from the Lebanese government.
“Not only are these refugees job hunting when they arrive in Lebanon and other countries in Europe, but (they are) also dealing with a completely difficult life situation,” said Sara.
Many of the 20 to 25 Syrians who help the students are professionally trained but have trouble finding work within their field in Lebanon, so the payment through the language program is considered a relief, she said.
“There is an overly simplistic and stereotypical image of refugees being helpless individuals,” Sara continued. “But they don’t want to be pitied. The conversation partners NaTakallam is working with are primarily from the middle class, doctors, lawyers, architects — well-educated people that have a lot to offer.”
William Mathis, a 26-year-old freelancer and gardener who uses the program, and his Arabic language partner “Samer” in Beirut, who did not want to reveal his real name for security reasons, basically talk about the day-to-day tasks of life.
“We’ll talk about how he’s doing, how it’s going for him in Beirut. He tells me errands he has to run,” Mathis told Middle East Eye. “Hearing Samer talk about [his life] in a very real way is very different from reading an article in term of impact. Reading about it seems unimaginable, but to hear it from the perspective of one person makes it comprehensible and real.”
For Samer, who was in his second year of law school prior to the war, NaTakallam bridges different worlds.
“The most important part of this project is the communication between different cultures because there is a big rift between East and West — especially in Syria,” Samer told Middle East Eye. “I want to show the world that we, Syrians, are a wide range of people — artists, writers, sculptors, lawyers, engineers. We are not ISIS (Islamic State militants) and Jabhat al-Nusra or Islamists who want to kill heathens.”
About 230 students have used the website since it started last year, said Sara, who added that she hopes NaTakallam becomes a regular part of the Arabic classroom curriculum at Columbia and other universities.
“This could become a routine supplement to Fusha in the classroom,” said Sara. “Students would have the opportunity to spend an hour practicing the spoken language a week while learning about the conversation partner’s personal story.”