NaTakallam (“we speak” in Arabic) connects refugees and displaced persons with income opportunities as language tutors, translators, cultural exchange instructors or consultants. The platform offers high-quality, curated language services delivered by refugees and displaced persons through the gig economy. The refugees NaTakallam supports come from a range of backgrounds—lawyers, architects, dentists, artists, engineers, teachers, and more. In countries like Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Colombia, and Argentina.
You mean that I can hone my polyglot skills while helping refugees and building one-on-one relationships with them? And it’s affordable?! What’s not to love? So in 2019, I signed up for an Arabic conversation session package with a refugee who earns money by teaching online through NaTakallam.
My teacher was amazing – a journalist from Syria, Bahel’s Modern Standard Arabic is impeccable, and he had extensive teaching experience. Beyond his capacity as a teacher though, was the personal connection this gave me to another human, who, due to terrible circumstances the world forced upon him, had become a refugee.
He was living in Istanbul, a city I lived in for three years. We had a lot we could talk about, and ended up relating on issues of fragmented identify and a confused definition of what it means to be home. That I could help a refugee by providing some income, while he helped me build language skills, is the type of personal connection that makes the Syrian refugee crisis less abstract. And NaTakallam is building these opportunities at scale. This is the very stuff that social enterprises are made of.
NaTakallam is the brainchild of Aline Sara. Aline took the time to share with us more about herself as well as the social enterprise that she co-founded and leads as CEO. A Lebanese born and raised in New York City, Aline grew up hearing stories about what it’s like growing up in a conflict zone. She was intimate with family memories of bombs and cross-fire, and became interested in conflict resolution and human rights.
In 2014, news headlines were dramatic, with violence and despair. Syrians were pouring into Lebanon and not allowed to work. This was a recipe for disaster. She could see herself in the refugees’ shoes and felt heart-broken. She had been planning to go to Damascus to study Arabic, but the crisis situation made it dangerous. She realized, however, that through the internet, Damascus could come to her! This was her magical ‘ah-ha moment’! She envisioned a win-win situation- people wanted to help Syrian refugees, and people wanted to learn Arabic.
The idea became a successful reality, and has since partnered with various high-profile organizations, corporations and universities. The vision broadened beyond Arabic lessons, and now they also offer French, Persian, and Spanish lessons, as well as translation services and academic programming in schools and universities, all offered by refugees.
Growing a multinational business as an entrepreneur is full of challenges. One challenge NaTakallam faces is how to pay the refugees for their services in conflict states. NaTakallam resolves this issue through various transfer mechanisms like Western Union, and through necessary partnerships with organizations on the ground to make the payments. These NGOs have also been helpful in making referring tutors and translators.
NaTakallam presents unique challenges as it is a social enterprise. For instance, they have struggled to balance growth with their humanitarian mission, and wanting to help the refugees that they serve as much as possible.
Of course, there are the rewarding moments that make all of the challenges worth it. Shares Aline, “Sessions with classrooms with children, like in Kentucky, and skyping with a Syrian refugee in Turkey… those are really powerful moments, that makes us feel like what we’re doing is bigger than language learning. We’re changing the narrative.”
Not every multinational entrepreneur sets out to earn that title. Aline shared with us what the most most surprising part of this journey was for her, “I wanted to support refugees in Lebanon, and I want to practice Arabic, but that was it….being entrepreneur was never an interest or aspiration… I never imagined that we’d get to this point, where we’re partnering with major NGOs, corporations, and universities, and have an extended family of displaced people.”
Beyond being the co-founder and CEO of Natakallam, Aline is also an avid traveler, a backpacker who enjoys informal non-hyper-commercialized travel, dancing and the arts, and street and political art.