Starting in October of last year, Iranian drones loaded with explosives began bombarding Kyiv among other cities in Ukraine as part of Russia’s full scale invasion that started in late February 2022. Yaroslavna Mykhovych, an ESL teacher, sleeps in shelters with her husband and two dogs when the the bombardments come. “It got a little bit difficult for us here in Kyiv,” says Mykhovych recently, understatedly.
When the war began, she didn’t know how her family would have the money to eat, as her work had completely dried up. When many of the city’s residents were leaving, Mykhovych started looking for jobs and found a language-learning platform called NaTakallam.
“I was looking for some job—just to provide food,” Mykhovych recalls. She had been looking at online job boards and eventually found a notice for NaTakallam, which promised to connect her to people who wanted to learn Ukrainian or Russian, as Mykhovych fluent in both languages. She sent her CV, had an interview and began teaching. The platform provided about half the income she needed during the early days of the war. One of her first students was Travis Horesh, a data analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina, who stumbled across a post about NaTakallam on a subreddit page. He said he believes deeply in the power of learning from other cultures and languages, referencing the famous Mark Twain quote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” And he wanted to help the people of Ukraine, but not necessarily through donations.
“Having a real live human being on the other end of a video call,” said Horesh, “is completely different than just scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, or reading an article.” He called the quality of lessons “fantastic.”
Most organizations that help refugees, asylum seekers and those impacted by conflict are typically nonprofits. But NaTakallam is one of the increasing number of mission-driven startups in the asylum/refugee/humanitarian space. Rather than existing from grants, these small companies seek to fulfill their missions without answering to the dictates of foundations and donors.
More Nimble, Less Beholden
Aline Sara, the co-founder of NaTakallam, advocates using the startup model in the humanitarian space. “As a small social enterprise, we can be much more nimble,” she says. “We can also take stances with less risk.”
Because NaTakallam doesn’t rely on grants, it can remain apolitical, or take a political stance, if the founders chose. Other mission driven startups in the refugee/asylum space include Eat off Beat, a restaurant and culinary service fueled by refugees that launched in 2015, founded by Manal Kahi. Mygrants is an educational platform created to help refugees and asylum seekers in Italy. More recently, the app Notifica, which allows asylum seekers in the US to notify their network if they encounter legal trouble.
Besides providing a dignified work and a sense of purpose to refugees, NaTakallam’s goal is to change the broader narrative around refugees. “When you’re a refugee and you’ve lost everything and the news and the headlines and the people around you look at you as a burden, as a criminal,” says Sara, “It’s extremely demoralizing.” In addition, NaTakallam aims to create dialogue and understanding around displacement.
The 15-person NaTakallam team – some are contract workers — is 100% remote. Today, NaTakallam has 100 language tutors, or language partners as they’re often called, who live across 34 countries. They sign up to teach for the platform often found through a network of friends, colleagues or NGOs. According NaTakallam’s most recent survey of its language partners, 65% rated NaTakallam as “very important” for their economic survival. Some 40% reported it provides them with more than half of their monthly income.
Although not profitable yet, NaTakallam hit $1 million in annual revenue in 2021, according to Sara, and has 16,000 unique users. Sara estimated it has disbursed $2.7 million to its tutors and translators (a service that uses professionals) since its founding in 2015, about two thirds going specifically to tutors who are refugees, asylum seekers and people impact by conflict. NaTakallam’s tutors earn anywhere from $10 to $60 an hour, depending on the service provided.
Sara notes that many refugees who have officially been resettled with the legal right to work, continue to teach via NaTakallam, often to send remittances to their families.
Sara founded NaTakallam, which translates to “We Speak” in Arabic, in 2015. Millions of Syrians were fleeing the horrific war with the clothes on their backs, landing in countries where they had no legal right to work. Sara knew there was also a need for Arabic tutors to help people in the host countries talk to the new refugees, and that a large portion of the migrants were professionals.
“What if we created this program where tutors are refugees could teach over Skype?” Sara recalls her light bulb moment, “so, that’s how the idea came.” Sara has a background in journalism and human rights, and
had just earned a Masters at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in 2014, where she met NaTakallam’s cofounder is Reza Rahnema. Having grown up in greater New York as the child of immigrants who fled Lebanon’s civil war, she traveled back and forth between Beirut and New York City.
Many of the Syrians initially flooding Lebanon and later other countries, were educated and had smart phones. So NaTakallam, a nascent startup, set out to match qualified Arabic speaking refugees with eager students for lessons via Skype or Whatsapp. “Our goal was to support those individuals, because we can leverage the freelance digital economy to support them,” says Sara.
It can take years for legal resettlement, if refugees or asylum seekers get resettled at all. Some of NaTakallam’s Arabic teachers are Syrians who have been living in limbo for ten years, says Sara. “When you’re Syrian and you fled the conflict, to Lebanon, for example,” notes Sara, “you’re not given a right to work. Which means you’re not given the right to restart your life, which means you effectively have no future.”
“We started with Syria, then we added Iranian and Afghans, then we added Venezuela in response to the Venezuelan crisis,” says Sara, who now lives between Paris, New York and Beirut. Two of the most recent languages added to NaTakallam’s roster are Ukrainian and Russian, taught by bilingual Ukrainians, both within the country and those who fled eastern cities like Kharkiv, to The Czech Republic or Poland, among others. NaTakallam offers nine languages in total, including Kurdish and Armenian, conducted via Google Meet or Zoom.
NaTakallam has expanded its offerings since launch, hiring certified translators and interpreters for jobs with NGOs, like Save the Children and the UNHCR, as well as corporate clients. NaTakallam has also partnered with over 300 schools and universities, including Yale and Columbia Universities, for NaTakallam programs and services.
What Do You Say In Reply To ‘How Are You?’
NaTakallam’s Refugee Voices, which brings refugees into corporate and community settings to share their story, followed by a Q&A, changes the narrative around refugees. Besides some of the financial and tech challenges NaTakallam faces, there are political, religious and cultural aspects that NaTakallam has to be mindful of when pairing students and tutors. For example, conversation around LGBTQ issues make some tutors with particular religious beliefs uncomfortable. Individual language classes, also allow for an organic, human connection to be made.
Horesh, the data analyst in North Carolina, signed up for seven months of Ukrainian classes with Mykhovych, the tutor in Kyiv, starting in May of 2022.
In addition to language instruction, Mykhovych told him about the history of Ukraine, some geography—she is from the Donbas region, now controlled by Russia and where her father still lives in hiding—the complexities around speaking Ukrainian vs Russian in Ukraine, and some foods.
Mykhovych says she answers all questions about the war when asked by students, but debates with herself how much to divulge. “I’m managing,” is the answer she now gives to students when they ask how she’s doing, “because I can’t say ‘I’m good.’” Mykhovych calls her students “amazing” and adds, “It revitalizes me, every time I feel uplifted full of energy when my sessions are over.”
Getting One Tutor To Canada
Mariam Ali, who lives outside Vancouver, Canada, has been taking NaTakallam’s Persian classes with Sayed Adiban, originally from Afghanistan, since the summer of 2021. He fled the Taliban and has lived as a refugee in Indonesia for nine years (it’s his second time as a refugee, the first was in Iran as a child) with no right to work, travel or access education. Developing a connection, Ali is helping to get Adiban to Canada, and launched a crowdfunding campaign that’s raised $8,500 of the $16,500 goal.
NaTakallam highlights some of their language partners’ journeys on their “Refugees are Superheroes” page. Gaith has been resettled in Italy where he earned a Master’s in Political Science and works as a journalist. He fled Syria in 2013 under horrific circumstances with shrapnel injuries. When he landed in Lebanon, he had to live in hiding and survived by teaching through NaTakallam.
Leila, originally from Iran, fled with her husband in 2015, due the consequences he faced for DJing rock and dance music at mixed parties, illegal in Iran. They’ve claimed asylum in Germany, living in multiple refugee camps and a converted shipping container along the way and were not allowed to work or study upon arrival. She calls the experience difficult and dehumanizing.
Sara wants to grow NaTakallam’s business to business programs, as well as expand newer languages like Ukrainian and Russian, and go deeper into the languages already offered. The company is just about to launch Arabic for French speakers. “We have to kind of be honest about it,” concedes Sara, “we are a social enterprise, where we need a marketplace.” Since NaTakallam is a social enterprise, they must pay attention to supply and demand.
NaTakallam doesn’t take their responsibilities to the tutors lightly. “We are very careful,” says Sara, about onboarding refugees. “If we say ‘we’re going to give you work’ and then if there’s no work— that’s quite upsetting,” says Sara, “We do pay attention to their well-being, to their expectations.”
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.