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What a Startup Mind-Set Can Contribute to Humanitarian Response

Startups can make refugee support more effective and complement the work of traditional aid groups, say the founders of NaTakallam, a social enterprise connecting displaced Arabic speakers with language learners. They urge more collaboration between such organizations.

Written by Aline Sara Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Aline Sara speaks at MIT's Innovate for Refugees event in Jordan in 2018.MIT Pan Arab Entrepreneurship Forum

When I first heard of the word “startup” I had the impression it mostly meant small, tech-based companies focused on rapid growth. Social entrepreneurship – building businesses for a social cause – was an unfamiliar concept to me.

In 2015, as more than a million Syrians fled to my country of origin, Lebanon, I was applying for jobs at large international organizations after completing my Master’s in international affairs in New York. Watching the news about Syrians in Lebanon, I realized my job hunt misery was in many ways a luxury. I imagined those in my position – recent graduates or young, qualified professionals who had just launched their careers – only to find their lives torn apart by war and to be denied the ability to work, rejected instead of welcomed by nations around the world.

Their situation struck a chord with me. My parents migrated to the U.S. in the midst of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war – but they were lucky enough to be welcomed and raised me and my brothers away from the violence back home.

I also realized that Syrian refugees had a skill I had struggled to master having been raised overseas: Arabic fluency. Before the war, Damascus was among the most reputable destinations for learning Arabic. With so many refugees using smartphones as a lifeline, I also saw that displaced Syrians were ideally placed to leverage their sought-after skills in the growing gig economy.

In the summer of 2015, my cofounder, Reza Rahnema, and I launched NaTakallam, a social enterprise that connects displaced Syrians with aspiring Arabic-language learners. NaTakallam – meaning “We Speak” in Arabic – gives people displaced by conflict, regardless of their location and residency status, an income opportunity while building human connections with students worldwide. Two years later, more than 2,000 language learners have engaged in NaTakallam sessions, and 100 displaced people have self-generated more than $230,000. NaTakallam now also connects refugee language partners to translation opportunities online.

Reflecting on NaTakallam’s journey to date, here are four lessons on how a startup mind-set can help tackle the global refugee crisis.

Start Small and Take Risks

In line with the Lean Startup method, NaTakallam started small, specific and tested assumptions immediately. Unlike large bureaucratic institutions that often strive for large numbers of “beneficiaries” and minimal losses early on, startups can dive in without guarantees. They depend on pivoting: fast and quick adaptation of their product or services in order to match their users’ needs. In fast-changing emergency settings that evolve into protracted crises, like in Syria, a capacity to quickly adapt and reassess tactics, free from rigid-implementation frameworks, is critical.

The Market Can Provide Sustainable Solutions

NaTakallam is grounded in market needs: those of language learners and qualified refugees. NGOs’ livelihood programming is often mostly focused on the most vulnerable people and in traditional sectors like agriculture. NaTakallam enables refugees to earn an income from high-level, in-demand skills. Because it is in sync with market demands, NaTakallam provides a sustainable model of income generation to middle-class communities within the displaced.

Refugees As Customers, Not Beneficiaries

NGOs must report to their donors, and funding and budgetary restrictions, frequently decided at a distance, can prevent flexibility. But startups report first to their users. In NaTakallam’s case, our users are both language learners and their refugee partners. Our refugee users’ satisfaction is just as important as that of our students. Refugees are part of our operations and consulted every step of the way. We adapt based on their needs and are not restricted by implementation plans, which sometimes focus on quantity rather than quality.

Leverage Technology for Work That Transcends Borders

Development projects are often limited to specific geographic areas. But with technology, we can provide services beyond someone’s physical location. NaTakallam works with displaced people in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, France, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Germany. Refugees who might be stuck in camps, or have limited freedom of movement, are able to travel virtually, forging friendships across the globe. A number of refugees who started working for us in Lebanon have been resettled in Europe. After the challenging first few months, some have returned to continue to work with us as they adapt to their new home.

It is easy to feel hopeless about the global refugee crisis. Dealing with the root causes of displacement lies on the shoulders of our leaders, of whom the most powerful often paint refugees and immigrants as a burden, or much worse. However, the rise of social entrepreneurship and collaborations between different types of organizations, should offer some hope.

One of NaTakallam’s most successful partnerships is with the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s In partnership with Google and Mercy Corps, is a website providing up-to-date, location-specific information to refugees arriving in Europe. Most of the website’s translation, including Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Dari and French, is provided by refugees recruited by NaTakallam. Other key partners of NaTakallam include small organizations like Re:Coded. They provide training to refugees who, through NaTakallam, sustain themselves while taking part in these programs.

It’s encouraging to see small organizations invited to take part in recent initiatives alongside larger ones, such as MIT’s Pan Arab Entrepreneurship Forum’s Innovate for Refugees competition, the recent Techfugees summit, and within alliances like the Global Coalition for Education.

In 2018, we should continue along this path. We need to go beyond public-private sector partnerships to strengthen collaboration between the great variety of organizations working to support the displaced, from small grassroots organizations to rising tech-for-good startups. It is not enough for large private sector leaders to join major international aid organization meetings on reforming refugee response. Smaller social enterprises, with their startup mind-set, should have a seat at the table, too.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.


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