NYLP: Welcome to New York Launch Pod, a podcast on new start-ups, businesses and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith, and in this episode, we’re focusing on a company that has a humanitarian mission. And stepping on to Launch Pod, we have Aline Sara, the co-founder of NaTakallam. Welcome to the podcast, Aline.
Aline: Thank you.
NYLP: So, what is NaTakallam, and am I pronouncing it correctly?
Aline: So, NaTakallam means we speak. That’s the way you say, “we speak” in Arabic. And it is an online platform that connects Arabic learners around the world with Syrian refugees or displaced Syrians because being a refugee is actually a very specific term. And so the idea is to provide opportunities for livelihood for Syrians because what people tend to forget is that while many Syrians are fleeing the conflict and managing to be resettled in neighboring countries or even in Europe, the U.S., very minimal numbers, Canada, even Latin America, they’re often barred from working in the local economy of the country or they are struggling with the language barrier because they don’t speak German, they don’t speak French, they don’t speak Portuguese. So the idea is to provide them with employment through the internet economy because they’re being hired by an American registered corporation.
And at the same time, for students, it’s a really wonderful way to practice the dialect of Arabic because Arabic is quite a difficult language to learn. And there’s a significant difference between what you’re gonna learn in the classroom setting, which is Modern Standard Arabic which is the Arabic that unites the whole Arab world, which is 22 countries. It’s a little bit like a Shakespearean Arabic and you actually don’t speak that language in the streets of major capitals around the region. So students who will study Arabic without actually having exposure to native speakers and access to the region to practice, end up, you know, with this very difficult version and very heavily grammar-intensive type of language. Many of them are journalists, aid workers, and they want the practical version. So we connect them with Syrians to be able to practice and focus on the dialect.
NYLP: How did you come up with this idea?
Aline: I’m Lebanese, born and raised in New York. And I’ve traveled back to the Middle East many times. I’m very attached to the region. And my background is in human rights and journalism. I actually grew up speaking French and English, and Arabic took the back seat. And throughout my whole life, my parents had tried to help me work on my Arabic through private lessons or programs at the American University of Beirut or other important establishments that focused on Arabic. You know, I didn’t really master it. But I got to a point, especially after my years of working as a reporter in Beirut, where I got to a pretty good dialect level. And what I needed was to just have someone to converse with to maintain it.
But I was actually in New York when I thought of the idea. And when I finished Columbia, where I did my Master’s in International Affairs, I had some time while I was job hunting. And I wanted to practice my Arabic. But when I looked for resources, it was either very pricey semester-long classes at universities, or very expensive one-on-one tutoring, New York City prices, $70, $80. And I just really couldn’t afford that. And I told myself, If I were in Lebanon, I just want someone who will speak with me in Arabic. And there’s all these Syrians. Lebanon has over a million and a half refugees right now. And they’re barred from the local economy. They have residency, but they’re not allowed to work. So you see all these individuals are highly qualified but can’t even work. And it’s heartbreaking. And I thought to myself, “You know what? I feel that there is a need for dialect practice for anyone interested in Arabic and all these Syrians who could become kind of the language buddies for a small compensation, not the prices of New York City tutoring.”
So that’s how I came up with the idea. And it stayed in the back of my head for a couple of months until I got an email from Columbia University that was informing alumni and current students that there’s a start-up competition that’s open for all type of nonprofit, for profit, different models. And I guess I always associated the start-up concept with very high profits and business-type of companies or organizations, which I don’t really, you know, I’m not from that world. But then when I saw nonprofit and I thought of my idea, which has a much more humanitarian angle, I pitched it, and we made it to the second round. And that made me realize that there was some interest and traction. And then from there, we applied a competition at the World Bank, and we made it to the semifinals. And we had to go from the idea phase to the actual launch and the testing, testing our hypothesis and trying out the product and going through the minimal viable product. Well, this is very new vocab that I learned this past year.
So our pilot took place in Beirut. We connected with an NGO in Beirut who helped us recruit some Syrians. And we decided to actually do this over Skype. And our pilot from there went kind of viral in the small world of Arabic learners and refugee-interested individuals. And so it kind of took off without us being fully prepared. And in August, our platform was shared around 5,000 times in a couple of days. And we started seeing, you know, while it was supposed to be pilot phase sign-ups, we were in the hundreds, which is, I guess, a large pilot. And then from there, it just clearly seemed like there was a lot of potential, and people were interested in this, you know, start-up and this product.
NYLP: A very good problem to have.
Aline: Yes, I know. I’m learning. But that’s a great problem to have in the start-up world.
NYLP: So before we get too far, maybe you can talk a little bit more about the Syrian-refugee crisis and what that is. People are familiar with it, but we were talking a little bit before we went on air. And more about the specifics of what’s going on for people who may not be so familiar.
Aline: So it’s a very complicated topic and area of the world, the Middle East. I will try and kind of just make a very brief synopsis. But we are facing the worst refugee crisis of our time. There’s, I believe, around 60 million refugees in the world today, and the majority of them are Syrian right now. I’m fairly sure. But there are more than 10 million Syrians who are displaced today. And so these individuals are fleeing a very tragic war that is very complex with multiple factions fighting each other with very little end in sight to the conflict. And this conflict is, I mean, it’s creating more and more migration from these countries. And it’s a severe crisis and while the refugees, I mean, they can go to Lebanon and they can go to Jordan and they can go to Turkey, which are the neighboring…and Iraq even, but Iraq is also a country that has a number of conflicts and issues going on.
So these individuals, they’re fleeing for their lives whether it’s from ISIS or the Assad regime or other terror groups. And I won’t delve into the politics, but the humanitarian crisis is extremely severe. There’s no end in sight. And what we need is actually innovative solutions that are sustainable. And I think that the appeal of NaTakallam is that it’s a sustainable concept. We’re not just giving aid. Aid will run out and when you’re a refugee and you’re given aid, great, you survive. But what do you do with yourself? And what we tend to forget when we think refugees, is that they’re poor, helpless individuals. I mean, they’re just like you and me. They were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. And Syria had actually one of the highest literacy rates in the region before the war broke out. And so for example, the Syrians we’re working with are lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, individuals who really had their life ahead of them, who were on their way to completing a degree, a master’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and then this happens, and then they have to leave, and their families sometimes left behind.
So I just was thinking of myself when I graduated from Columbia and I was depressed with the job hunt, you know. But at home, I had my family. My country wasn’t falling apart in front of me. And I wasn’t in a new country where no one was looking at me with very friendly eyes. Because that is also, unfortunately, what we’re seeing. But these people are not only without a job, they’re literally barred from working in the local economy where they are, in certain places. And then they’ve seen destruction, and their family is sometimes stuck back home. Rather than just being a passive recipient to food, shelter, which I completely think is essential and NGOs are doing amazing work, but there’s a whole other value to giving these individuals work. And this type of work is actually, it’s very rewarding for them because they’re teaching. They’re the ones helping student. It’s kind of flipped in that sense.
NYLP: And I didn’t realize that some of these individuals are barred from participating in local economy. Why is that?
Aline: So this is mostly in the neighboring countries. So Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey are receiving millions of Syrians. And these countries are, Turkey is a little bit different, but especially Lebanon and Jordan, these are countries that are struggling on a number of other levels economically, you know, the unemployment rates. There’s a fear that the Syrians are gonna come and take the labor of the people. So this is why there are work restrictions. And so it’s very hard for them to be able to get a work permit. And it is understandable also, on behalf of those countries. So the whole region is really going through a crisis. For Germany, France, Brazil, there are different rules. It depends on the individual. But Germany wants to make sure that the Syrians who are arriving are learning German. They have to go to German school. They have to be limited in the amount of hours they’re putting into work. So there it’s slightly different. But in places like Lebanon, it’s extremely hard for the Syrians to get a work permit.
NYLP: And so you’re able to pay these refugees via the internet.
Aline: Yeah, we are able to, so depending on the country, it is either through the internet and payment mechanisms through the web or through our NGO partners on the field. Yep.
NYLP: So you had this idea and then everyone’s giving you attention, the World Bank and so forth. How did you get off the ground?
Aline: Well, we just kind of jumped into it. I think that when you’re in the start-up field, you got to take risks. You just gotta go for it. And I think I’m very compatible in that sense with the start-up world because I tend to be more spontaneous and not think like a lawyer, of all the risks and everything. So we also used our network, the founders. I had lived in Lebanon. I still go back a lot. We had a lot of friends who gave us some advice. So we had some ideas. And also the fact that I’m based in the city and my connections from the U.S. and from Columbia and different organisms kind of helped us. But I do think that there is a very heightened sensitivity to the refugee crisis, at least in the humanitarian and in the international affairs world. People are very concerned with this crisis and that helped us because that is what we are working on.
And so individuals saw this as a really win-win situation. It is literally a win-win situation both for the student, who is getting a very affordable one-on-one tailored access to practice the dialect, and the Syrians. Actually the Syrians I talk to tell me that this is way beyond the money component. They are just making friends around the world, and they love it. And, you know, we have some really cute stories of friendships developing and one of the Italian girls on our platform is gonna be in Beirut this summer. So she’s gonna meet her Syrian conversation partner. So it’s great. I think that people saw the kind of win-win component to it.
NYLP: And how were you able to get your first students and tutors?
Aline: I think the first students were through friends who are working on their Arabic or who are studying Arabic and have friends who are working on Arabic. So it’s very much in our kind of environment. I thought of NaTakallam for myself, really. So if I had the time, I would be doing sessions on NaTakallam. In fact, a lot of the Syrian conversation partners keep telling me, “So when are you signing up for classes? We want to give you classes for free.” So I’m naturally in the environment of individuals who would be interested in this because I conceived of it based on my own experience. And I know that many people share this desire to find a flexible, affordable way to practice Arabic without necessarily traveling to the region.
NYLP: And you’re looking for someone who has baseline level of Arabic, not someone who’s starting from scratch.
Aline: So yeah, when we thought of NaTakallam, the idea was either a maintenance program. So say, you’ve studied Arabic for a couple of years. You were living in the region, a lot of people have studied Arabic in Damascus, the capital of Syria. In fact, that was the number one destination for Arabic. It was the most popular and was known for being an excellent place for Arabic studies. But it’s, obviously, you can’t go to Syria right now unless you’re a reporter or an aid. I mean, it’s not recommended to go to Syria today for your Arabic practice. So the idea was either a maintenance program or a complement to students in universities who are studying the formal Arabic and want to practice the dialect alongside. It’s kind of like tutoring, right?
So if you’re taking Arabic at Columbia and you want to have a little bit of additional help but also understand how you can use the Modern Standard Arabic and twist it for the dialect, that’s the idea for NaTakallam, to be a complement. But that being said, I’m amazed because we have beginners who are signing on. And the Syrians that we’re working with are creating material and teaching from scratch through Skype to students. And so we’re not originally teaching Arabic, we’re more of conversation platform, right, focused on the conversation. But it’s become a teaching platform, clearly, as I’ve seen some beginners. And we’re in the process of getting a curriculum, as well, which would be suitable for someone who wants to start from scratch.
NYLP: And how are you finding capable conversationalists?
Aline: With our NGO partners and our contacts, we’ve let people know we’re looking for Syrians who have a fairly good level of English, or French. Actually, we have a few who are Francophone because the core team at NaTakallam is also Francophone. It works out fine. So when we have French students signing up, we will switch to the French, for example. But there’s an interview process. We’re not treating these individuals as some bizarre specimen. They’re individuals like anyone else who go through us. We look at their CV. They have to fill a basic questionnaire to make sure they satisfy the basic criteria of internet access. You know, the basic information. And there’s a interview process and then we consult within the team. And then there’s a small training and vetting process as well.
NYLP: And how many tutors do have signed up right now?
Aline: I would say we’ve had over 25 Syrian conversation partners. And we’re around that number right now. And some of them start and then find other opportunity.
NYLP: So once someone is paired up, a student and a conversation partner, what are the actual mechanics of the program? How does it work start to finish?
Aline: So when you sign up to NaTakallam, you provide us first with your background, Arabic level spoken, and Modern Standard Arabic. If you have any particular interest, if you want to focus on medical vocab or politics and media, a lot of journalists sign on and are interested in talking a little bit about the situation or the history of Syria. So we look at all these different criteria and then you get an email welcoming you, giving you the guidelines. There’s an explanation of the purpose of the program, the situation in which some of the Syrians are working. Lebanon is particularly difficult because of a lot of electricity cuts. Sometimes the internet access is difficult. So there’s a policy on cancellation on both ends, you know, 24-hour cancellation policy, and all these different things. And then you have the e-commerce platform, where you purchase the sessions, and then the doodle form that we’re using. We’re using our platform from our pilot phase and are actively looking for a full on-web platform today to manage the hundreds of sign ups as opposed to the 10 sign ups we had during the pilot. We look at your schedule, and we have to match it with the schedule of the Syrian conversation partner, as well as all the Arabic level and interest. So we actually do an active matchmaking process, which takes time but ensures much better compatibility between the individuals.
NYLP: And do you schedule the conversations or is that?
Aline: Right. Once you purchase your sessions and we find the conversation partner that works for your schedule and your interest, there’s an email introduction. And each Syrian conversation partner has a calendar set up where you book a time. We use a software called Calendly, don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but you can book sessions with someone and have your schedule available to see when they’re free, when they’re not free.
NYLP: What’s your target demographic for students?
Aline: We’re all dual citizens, the core team. And we are all into international affairs. We really want this to be a global platform. And so there’s no, I mean, people are signing up from everywhere, literally. And we have Syrians working from many different countries. So it’s open to everyone. There are definitely some students who are gonna be more interested in this than others. I think the U.S. students have less easy access to the Middle East, for example, than those in Europe. I think that classes, Arabic classes, are more expensive in places like the U.S. than in other countries. So it is particularly attractive to them because it’s quite affordable compared to other options, I think. So we want to work also on establishing partnerships with the universities across the U.S., in which, since we’re a complement to the classroom, the idea is to see if universities would subsidize students to use NaTakallam in addition to the traditional classroom. And so we’ve entered into trials with students at Swarthmore and GW.
NYLP: That seemed kind of like a natural fit for me. I was thinking, as you were talking about that, that it’s people who are already learning the language who can supplement, maybe high school students or college students. And so have you seen that growth or that area?
Aline: Yeah, I know. So that’s what we’re actively working on. And it was actually the universities or the professors that reached out to us with their interests. So that’s definitely an area where we’re hoping to really grow, especially that many of these students who are taking Arabic are interested in the region, interested in humanitarian affairs, the refugee crisis. And I learn every day. Every day, I realize the challenges they face. Their freedom of movement or lack thereof or, you know, what it’s like to know that half of your family is still in a country that is being bombed every day. Very humbling to realize the challenges they’re dealing with. And I think that students are really appreciative of that and realizing what it means to be a refugee or a displaced individual. Yeah.
NYLP: And out of curiosity, so the logistics are, it’s a Skype conversation, right?
Aline: Mostly Skype, yup.
NYLP: And so it’s free to both parties to have a conversation via Skype.
Aline: Yeah, Skype is not charging us, yeah.
NYLP: And then what’s the hardware that some of these refugees or displaced Syrians are able to use?
Aline: So most Syrians have a smartphone, actually. In fact, there are many reports talking today about how smartphones for refugees are almost as important as food because this is the way they communicate with their family. This is the way, when they’re leaving, they figure out the safe routes by which to travel. It’s a critical tool and so for those who don’t have smartphones, in Lebanon, for example, they do have access to our NGO partners for access to laptops or the web. But most of these, you know, we’re working with Syrians who are mostly middle-class Syrians who do have the basics, laptop, phone, etc.
NYLP: And how much does it cost to have a conversation?
Aline: It’s $15 an hour, and then you can buy a pack of 5 sessions, where it comes out to $14 an hour, or 10 sessions and then it goes down to $13 an hour.
NYLP: What happens with that $15?
Aline: Syrians get a flat rate of $10 per hour, regardless of the package purchased by the student. And the rest is going to overhead costs right now for our start-up, for basic operations, transfers, legal costs, everything related to launching a business.
NYLP: And there must be some incredible conversations that come out of this.
Aline: Yes, for sure. I mean, so we do a quality control through a survey that we send, and we get some really touching survey about how people are really enjoying this and are becoming friends. And just that they find the service extremely helpful given their needs and the fact that they don’t have time to enroll in a full course, and they want flexibility. So, no, I mean, there’s definitely, clearly friendships that are developing across the ocean.
NYLP: Have there been any incredible stories that come out of this that, once a connection is made, something happens?
Aline: Yeah. Well, I think that, you know, I’ve spoken to a few students and some of them told me that they’re trying to help the Syrian conversation partner get asylum in Canada or in places that are less difficult than Lebanon. You know, we have one Syrian conversation partner who’s pregnant. And so her student wanted to see how she can send a gift to Lebanon, you know, for the baby. You know, we had a pair, a student and a conversation partner, who told us they became such good friends that they just want to make it a friendly meeting every week with no monetary exchange, just like English and Arabic language exchange, which we obviously, we love it. It’s like a friendship developing. So there’s definitely these stories like that.
NYLP: And when I was researching you and the company, I saw this great quote in Quartz. And I want to read it because I think it talks a little bit about what you’re doing. It was someone named Hosam and his quote was, “I don’t want people to look down on me. I got out of Syria to continue my life not to be humiliated or to ask for help.”
Aline: That’s exactly, I think what it is, and it’s great to see. You know, actually, we have a student who wrote in her feedback something like, “I love the 100 top vocab words list that so and so created for me. It’s so helpful, and it’s really helping me progress. And I think it’s wonderful.” And he’s a Syrian conversation partner. His background is in computer science. And so he’s basically joined the platform and has become a teacher. He’s become a teacher. Since being with NaTakallam, creates his own material and his students love him. They continue sessions with him and that’s it. It’s like it’s a new profession he’s created for himself. And he’s definitely the one helping them, not the other way around.
NYLP: And it has to be pretty incredible from a student’s perspective. If you are in the U.S. or in Europe or wherever you are, and you see the perspective of someone who’s gone through so much hardship and you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m really annoyed that the air conditioner blew out.” Or whatever else is going on and just to gain perspective must be incredible from a humanitarian standpoint as well.
Aline: Yeah, absolutely. It’s very humbling. It’s very, I guess it’s a way of living kind of these feelings that when you go to the field, you tend to be much closer to those challenges as humanitarians, reporters. But being here, and being in the comfort of our New York City apartment, for example, and knowing that what they’re going through from there, it’s really amazing. In fact, some students, “it’s unbelievable that I came from the comfort of my bedroom in Brooklyn be talking to someone in the mountains in Lebanon who has really gone through a different experience in life.”
NYLP: Have you received any criticism?
Aline: We haven’t. I think the type of criticism we’re seeing or concerns is sometimes when people will post about the platform on social media and individuals alluding to, “Oh, wow. Well, this platform is pairing Americans with these, you know, Arabs.” or whatever comes with the image of Arabs in the mainstream media that tends to be pretty very sadly destructive and completely false. So I think that NaTakallam is helping to break these stereotypes when you have individuals sign on who have never gone to the region or don’t have the opportunity to meet with these people. And yeah, I mean, we’ve had, for example, a student I remember, he was so excited he’s like, “My conversation partner told me today that a lot of Syrians love Pink Floyd as well.” You know, and how he was so shocked by that. And, you know, it’s a way to show that we’re really not that different and that, you know, these horrible images that are being shown out of the region and the terrorism or the groups of terrorists, and even the word terrorism is the word I struggle with because I think it’s very simplistic. But the people who are fleeing the region are by far people who are suffering from these individuals much more than we are because they’re taking over these people’s countries and homes and imposing their rule. And that is just a fraction of that part of the world, and most are by far the majority of individuals are not at all that type of people. And so it’s, you know, a big tragedy to see the discourse in the mainstream media about other people coming from that region. And I think we should do everything we can to show who they really are.
NYLP: One of the things that I found interesting about what you’re doing is that as you grow and have more conversations with students and teachers, as you talk about changing the perception, you’re changing the dialogue. And part of having a dialogue, I think, is that a lot more can come from that in addition to the actual conversation there are other connections that can be made that you talked about it and how that spreads.
Aline: Yeah, for sure. It’s true that a lot of people who are signing on to NaTakallam are interested in the region and have a different image already and are not the ones who are succumbing to what we’re hearing in the media. But I do think that we have some people who try it and who are learning. And I’ve Lebanese friends who use the platform. And they’re learning what it’s like to be a refugee. You know, so there’s the social awareness of what it is to be a refugee then there’s the cultural awareness. There’s many different… me, just everyday myself, I learn every day. And I realize this is another challenge they’re dealing with that I don’t have to deal with. You know and so I definitely think it’s a space for creating understanding, awareness, friendships, language practice, livelihood, there’s many different ways to look at this. And it does some nice things on multiple fronts.
NYLP: What’s your ultimate goal for NaTakallam?
Aline: Well, I think that given that it’s a very convenient way to practice Arabic, and it’s a perfect complement to the classroom setting, and I know that for myself I would have loved to have access to this while I was learning Arabic. I think it would be really wonderful to see NaTakallam become an integrated option or part of Arabic classes in the U.S., for example, given that that’s where we’re based right now. And that Arabic is actually one of the fastest areas of language study, of foreign language study in the U.S. today, for multiple reasons. So that would be really wonderful because it’s really a win-win situation, and it will directly impact more Syrians. The more people are taking Arabic through NaTakallam, the greater the impact. There’s a direct correlation. And I don’t think we realize also for them even if they have two or three students per week, I think that makes the difference between feeling that you’re a passive recipient to aid or have nothing to look forward to throughout your time while you’re waiting to get a new job or waiting to get asylum.
And you know, just today, I was trying to work on some pairing. We were a bit behind schedule and I had to pair someone. And I wrote to one of the conversation partners that I hadn’t talked to him in a couple weeks besides via email, I WhatsApp with them often. And I wrote to him, “Do you have time for another student?” And he immediately he liked left me a voicemail and told me, “Thank you so much. You’ve helped me provide money to my family that I’m sending back home. I’m able to do some studies on the side. And I’m looking for a new job to be able to really move forward in my career, and this has helped me so much.” Because they feel a sense of dignity restored, I think. When they’re looked at for help with the Arabic and not just, you know, the fact that they’re the one teaching and that they’re helping the students. I think it’s really precious rather than just, you know, ending up kind of, trying to work in a restaurant, making a couple of dollars, waiting tables, for example, whereas here they’re really developing friendships, helping individuals learn about their language, their culture. And a lot of them are sending money back home because their family back home or in the Middle East and Lebanon and places like that is really struggling. So…
NYLP: And how do people find out more about you and NaTakallam?
Aline: Well, we have a website. And there’s a Facebook page where you can follow us, and we post some information there and on Twitter as well. So it’s natakallam.com, N-A-T-A-K-A-L-L-A-M for our website. And then our Facebook page is NaTakallam as well and @NaTakallam on Twitter.
NYLP: Well, Aline Sara, you are doing some wonderful things. Thank you for stepping on to the New York Launch Pod and sharing your time with us.
Aline: Thank you for inviting me.
NYLP: And if you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can follow us on social media, @NYLaunchPod or visit nylaunchpod.com.SHARE THIS: