How language, tech open opportunities for refugees

by Heba Kanso | @hebakanso | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 June 2018 14:52 GMT

One of the Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis students is reflected in the computer screen as he attends a class to learn basic and advanced coding skills at Re:Coded boot camp, in Erbil, Iraq February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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"The story of refugees and immigrants moving around the world is not new - but hopeful technology can make these transitions easier"

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Shadi Khaled, a Syrian refugee living in Iraq, teaches Arabic on his computer, calling it his "hope for the future" as a job means money and a chance to educate people about his life.

For two years, Khaled has worked at NaTakallam - "we speak" in Arabic - a social enterprise that hires Syrian and Iraqi refugees in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, where refugees either cannot work or have trouble finding a job.

More than 100 refugees have earned money teaching Arabic over Skype to students in locations from the United States to Europe, according to its Lebanese-U.S. founder Aline Sara.

Most of the refugees have fled the horrors of the Syrian war and are now displaced, many unable to find substantial work and cut off from their old life, said Sara.

For many, her company is a lifeline to the outer world.


"I am living in a camp and it opened a window for me to speak to people around the world. I feel like I am travelling to different countries," Khaled told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Irbil, in northern Iraq.

"It also helped with money because I am sick and can't work a labour job, and my wife has cancer. NaTakallam really helped me with paying for the hospital and medicine."

According to a United Nations study released this week, Syrians are the world's largest displaced population, with 12.6 million people forced from their homes.

Wars, persecution and other forms of violence have driven a record 68.5 million people from their homes, more than the population of Britain or France, the report said.

Khaled said his salary is low, $200-$300 a month, but he is proud to provide something for his family and to teach others.

"It brings income to refugees, it's dignifying, and it's flipping the narrative where people are often thinking refugees are the passive recipients," said Sara by phone from New York where she is based, in addition to Lebanon.


Nor is the teaching all one way.

Experts say learning a host language is key to successful integration for immigrants. Children can get educated and make friends; it helps adults win work and social acceptance.

Sara founded her business in 2015 after seeing the struggle of Syrians who have fled war and were in limbo - unable to work, distressed and displaced in a place that was not home.

According to the U.S.-based Duolingo, a free language-learning app, European languages have grown increasingly popular as the refugee crisis spills onto its shores.

More than a million refugees and migrants, mostly fleeing war in the Middle East and poverty in Africa, reached the EU in 2015.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has since noted a slowdown, with about 170,000 migrants reaching Europe by sea in 2017 against some 360,000 the year before.

Usually English is the most studied language in countries such as Sweden and Greece, but Arabic newcomers want to learn the native tongue of their newly adopted homeland so they can acclimatise quicker, said Duolingo spokesman Sam Dalsimer.

Dalsimer said about 1.1 million Arabic speakers are learning German and 1.5 million Arabic speakers are learning French.

"The story of refugees and immigrants moving around the world is not new - but hopeful technology can make these transitions easier," said Dalsimer.

(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths ((Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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