A handful of New Yorkers have gathered at New York University to practice conversing in Arabic. Their two conversation partners have joined via Skype, video images projected side-by-side on a TV monitor.
The scene would be nothing out of the ordinary, save for the fact that the conversation partners, Ghayath and Rasha, are recently displaced Syrian refugees.
They are among some 50 refugees working with NaTakallam, a New York startup that pairs Arabic language learners, most based in the U.S., with displaced Syrians for paid, one-on-one conversation practice sessions over Skype.
NaTakallam sessions have garnered more than $110,000 for refugee instructors since launching in August 2015, according to the startup. Instructors keep $10 of the $15 paid by students for a one hour session. For the many Syrian refugees who must often start over and adjust to life in entirely new countries, the earnings supplement work that is already difficult to secure.
The idea for NaTakallam (Arabic for “we speak”) grew out of Aline Sara’s desire to improve her own Arabic speaking skills as a Lebanese-American. “The opportunities to practice Arabic were . . . kind of limited in New York, or extremely expensive for what I could afford at the time,” said the startup founder and CEO.
Typical Arabic classes also tend to teach Modern Standard Arabic, which Sara describes as “a Shakespearean version” of Arabic. “You don’t speak that way in your day-to-day activities,” she said. Conversational sessions provide the opportunity to practice regional dialects of the language. Most Syrians speak Levantine Arabic, one of the most widely understood dialects among Arabic speakers.
For instructors like Ghayath, a Syrian refugee who has resettled in Italy, the language sessions are also an opportunity for cultural exchange. “We choose to speak together about daily life, about their interests, about my life, their life … the news.”
“I always say NaTakallam is my window to the world, because I travel every day through this small screen,” he added.
Students sign on for a variety of reasons, whether they’re studying related subjects such as political science, history or journalism or are part of the Arab diaspora and hoping to improve their native language skills. Other students may be tourists preparing for a trip abroad. Ghayath assesses each student’s particular language needs and tailors lessons accordingly.
Beyond the financial independence NaTakallam offers, Sara stresses the importance of bringing awareness and understanding to refugee communities.
“We’re always talking about refugees en masse. We don’t take the time to individualize them, to humanize them. This is a direct way,” said Sara, “You’re connecting in a one-on-one setting, people get to know each other. I think it’s very powerful.”