On April 7th 2020, Kier Schuller, Research & Policy Analyst at ICTC, spoke with Aline Sara,
the Co-Founder and CEO of NaTakallam
, an award-winning social enterprise that connects refugees and displaced people to remote work opportunities in language teaching. In this interview, Kiera and Aline discuss the global refugee crisis, the role of technology in facilitating new forms of work, access to livelihoods and social connections, and the thrills and challenges of tech-based social enterprises.
You are now the Co-Founder and CEO at NaTakallam
, a social enterprise that is leveraging technology to provide a service in the midst of the global migration crisis, which our existing resettlement and humanitarian systems have been struggling to manage. Can you tell me about NaTakallam and what it does?
NaTakallam hires refugees, displaced people, and just recently, vulnerable host communities, as online tutors, teachers, translators and virtual exchange partners. We are a remote team with members across California, New York, Paris, Beirut and Cairo. We’ve worked with over 160 refugees and displaced people in over 65 countries, and connected some 6000 people to classes or virtual exchanges sessions. .
NaTakallam offers three main services. First, there is one-on-one online language learning, which is now available in Arabic, French, Persian and Spanish. Called “Conversation Session,” this is for all levels and is adapted to your needs, so you can ask for what you want. We also have a structured Arabic curriculum. The second service we provide is an academic and virtual exchange program. We have partnerships with universities, mostly across the U.S., and these usually take the form of a complimentary classroom. For example, if you are studying Arabic at Berkeley, we work with the professors and they integrate language practice sessions with refugees through NaTakallam, so you practice what you are learning in real conversations. These programs can also be thematic; we’ve been integrated into classes on human rights issues, on Syrian drama and television, where we bring the experiential component. We also have programming for K-12 schools, which focuses on raising awareness at a young age around migration issues (what it means to be displaced, what it means to be forced to leave your home, etc.). We also offer this in corporate settings, in a program called “Refugee Voices.” And the final service we provide is translation, which is another remote service that can be provided by refugees who have the skillset.
The refugees who work with NaTakallam are effectively independent contractors with a US-based organization, rather than full-time employees in their host countries, which allows them to work outside of or beyond the local restrictions in places where they are located (where work permits are difficult to attain). In this way, NaTakallam leverages the gig economy, as many tech-based startups do, to connect refugees with opportunities. Are there any problems with this gig-economy model?
“Gig economy” is such a loaded, controversial word, and in most developed countries it is coming under fire right now. But for refugees, gig-economy jobs are often the only lifeline they can get. NaTakallam was created thinking of the Lebanese context, where restrictions for refugees focus on full-time employment, so part-time work is the way around that. Of course, we would love to be able to provide full-time employment to the refugees we work with, but right now for both legal and logistical reasons, it is not doable. But it’s also interesting because a lot of refugees we speak with actually love the flexible, part-time opportunities that they have because many are parents or have just resettled in Europe and are taking courses learning the local language, etc. and working through NaTakallam on the side to sustain themselves. So while the gig economy is problematic and controversial — and rightfully so in many contexts — it is often the other way around for refugees, though this also depends on their status.