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3Novices:Online start-up gives Syrian refugees an income and a face

NEW YORK // Several times a week, Syrian refugee Noor Al Kasseer uses Skype to teach conversational Arabic to students scattered across the world.

The income is helping her set up a new life with her husband in Italy, where they arrived two months ago after more than a year of living in one room of a shared flat in Lebanon.

While many may think of Syrian refugees as desperate, helpless and extremely poor, Ms Al Kasser is among a handful changing that narrative with the help of NaTakallam, a New York-based online platform that pairs them with Arabic learners around the world.

Unlike more traditional forms of aid, the start-up aims to provide sustainable livelihoods that are also humane and intellectually stimulating to displaced Syrians unable to find work in Lebanon or other countries they have fled to, said Aline Sara, one of the founders NaTakallam, which means "we speak in Arabic".

"Displaced Syrians in Lebanon don't have a very promising future," said Ms Sara. They typically cannot work legally and "many of them end up working in the black market on really low wages".

"Many Syrian refugees don't even have a legal resident status in Lebanon and end up being detained. We don't even realise how much everything we think is normal is a luxury for them. For example, freedom of movement or even being able to job hunt is a luxury which we take for granted."

Ms Al Kasseer, 28, used to be a biology and chemistry teacher at a school in the central Syrian city of Salamiyah before the escalating conflict forced her to flee in November 2015 and join an estimated 1.5 million refugees living in neighbouring Lebanon.

"I was living illegally in Lebanon before getting resettled in Italy and everywhere I went looking for a job in Lebanon, I was rejected," Ms Al Kasseer told The National. "When I told them that I was working as a teacher in Syria for three years, they refused saying that they can't give jobs to refugees."

Ms Al Kasseer is facing the same difficulty finding work as a refugee in Italy, although she has applied for asylum. For now, she spends most of her time learning Italian and teaching Arabic via NaTakallam, which charges a fee of US$15 (Dh55) per hour for sessions via Skype.

"I earn $10 per session and it helps us out," she said.

The rest of the fee goes to NaTakallam to fund the business. Since its launch in August 2015, the start-up has managed to generate more than $120,000 for about 60 refugees.

The idea was born out of Ms Sara's need to improve her conversational Arabic as a Lebanese-American living in New York. Although she and her co-founders, Anthony Guerbidjian and Reza Rahnema, focus mainly on displaced Syrians in Lebanon, NaTakallam also has teachers living in Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, France, Italy, Iraq, Germany and Turkey.

According to the team, more than 1,300 students in more than 60 countries have taken Arabic lessons through NaTakallam, either as individuals or through university partnerships and programming. NaTakallam users range from Arab-Americans who want to improve their Arabic to people who have very little knowledge of the language. They are spread across the globe, including countries such as the US, France, UAE, Australia, UK and Canada.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to get our daughters to practise, given that we live in New York and that they are only in Lebanon one month a year. Knowing that this service helps her [their teacher] in her difficult situation makes it a win-win on both sides," said Kinda Younger, mother of two girls.

NaTakallam also helps to dispel negative stereotypes about refugees as the students engage with their teachers in conversations about politics, human rights, the arts and the daily struggles faced by displaced Syrians.

"NaTakallam came as a gift from heaven," said Ms Al Kasseer, who has students in the US, Britain and Australia. "Before this, I had no job, no money, but today I not only have money but so many friends from different parts of the world."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae



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