NaTakallam: Providing sustainable income for refugees
The project in brief
The project is implemented by NaTakallam in Lebanon, Türkiye, Mexico, USA, France, Canada, Syria and Indonesia. It began in 2015 and is currently ongoing.
NaTakallam is a social enterprise created to offer refugees the skills and platform needed to support themselves from anywhere in the world using the freelance digital economy. We market high-quality, curated language services delivered by refugees, including translation, online language teaching and tutoring, and cultural exchange services. We provide refugees with the training and mentorship needed to perform the services, which offers a pathway to sustainable, earned income during and after displacement and/or in the early stages of resettlement.
To date, displaced persons have self-generated over $3,000,000 through NaTakallam.
110+ million individuals today have been forcibly displaced from their homes, only to find themselves trapped in a state of uncertainty, in camps, border detention centers, or living in host countries without legal residency. Even when resettled, refugees encounter language and cultural barriers, social isolation, and discrimination in the labor market. Regrettably, influential global actors offer minimal support, while growing hostility toward refugees hampers the implementation of supportive policies.
No matter the reason for displacement, our goal is to break a cycle of isolation from society and the economy by providing marginalized groups with an autonomous and sustainable income stream, regardless of their location, work status, or any other legal or societal barriers to employment. Moreover, we acknowledge the vital need to foster an open and tolerant discourse on migration, in which education plays a crucial role.
The advent of the freelance digital economy opens a host of new employment opportunities for refugees, the internally displaced, and anyone else cut off from the traditional labor market. In addition, contrary to popular stereotypes, many refugees are highly educated, with wide-ranging skill sets. NaTakallam provides the necessary platform, training, and mentoring to turn that opportunity into reality. We identify, assess, and hire refugees and other conflict-affected individuals. They join the NaTakallam team, where they receive training, support, and a sense of community, thereby acting as a springboard for them to advance their education and career while restoring a support network they may have lost due to being displaced. Tutors are then matched with language users, classrooms, or organizations based on their skills and interests.
Because NaTakallam’s founders chose to build it as a social enterprise instead of a non-profit, the services NaTakallam offers to refugees are sustainable in the long term without need for ongoing support from charitable donations. Refugee language partners know that they are earning their own living with high-skilled, meaningful work, not receiving handouts, which offers a sense of dignity and purpose that other programs might not.
Finally, by providing in-demand digital services, NaTakallam expands livelihood options beyond traditional sectors and physical borders. Having access to the worldwide market means there is never a shortage of clients seeking refugee-delivered language services.
Main activities of the Good Practice
- Individual language tutoring and cultural exchange sessions in Arabic, Persian, French, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, Kurdish, English and Armenian. Includes a curriculum integrating spoken Levantine and Modern Standard Arabic, advanced Arabic for Professionals courses, and Refugee Voices, NaTakallam’s interactive guest-speaker sessions.
- Professional translation and interpretation services offered in 50+ languages.
- Academic programs in the form of semester-long language lessons or guest speaker sessions addressed to K–12 or university classrooms.
Academic clients/partners: Cambridge University, Yale University, Columbia University, Brown University, Tufts University, UC Berkeley, UPenn, Georgetown University, New York University
NGO/implementation partners: (collaborating with partners in the field to identify and vet potential conversation partners in need and to help facilitate payment to LPs in hard-to-reach markets): Arcenciel (Lebanon), Re:Coded (Iraq), IRC (Global), American University in Iraq, Scalabrini International Migration Network, Church World Service, Friends, Peace and Sanctuary, Union Aid, UNHCR, PASO Colombia, UNHCR Trinidad and Tobago, Safe Place International, Proyecto Habesha
NGO/foundations/marketing partners: UNHCR, IOM, IRC, Tent Foundation, GHR Foundation, International Red Cross
What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?
Some of our obstacles are tied to intrinsic challenges such as limited tutor availability, connectivity, technical issues and technological integration, ensuring consistent quality control of tutors and sessions, and capacity constraints (especially for our translation department). Some other obstacles are tied to this specific moment: in a post-pandemic world, in which in-person events are preferred, our online (albeit interactive) sessions are not as competitive as local, off-line alternatives. Additionally, busy professionals may prefer to learn with apps, which are much less effective but cheaper and require less time investment. Moreover, media attention and public discourse shape the sense of urgency towards refugee issues (or lack thereof).
How they were overcome
We are continuously working on mitigating these challenges. Our strategy includes building strong partnerships with academic institutions, working with schools and universities to integrate our language programs into curricula. We’re also offering regular sales to make private tutoring sessions more accessible to individual clients.
Besides that, we prioritize continuous recruiting, training, and support for our refugee tutors. NaTakallam is always accepting applications from prospective tutors, and we add more to the team whenever demand exceeds capacity. Professional development ensures high-quality language services and enriching cultural experiences for learners and clients. To ensure sustainability, we're also diversifying revenue streams. Grants and partnerships will support the roll-out of additional language-related services. For instance, we recently added a four-track Arabic for Professionals course to fill the unmet need for practical resources for upper-level Arabic students.
Results of the Good Practice
- We have hired, trained, and provided 400 + language partners (refugees, displaced and conflict-affected individuals, and their host communities) with autonomous income streams.
- With NaTakallam, displaced persons and their host communities have self-generated US$3,000,000 since 2015, reaching 16,000 users (individuals, corporations, and organizations).
- We have facilitated the support of refugees and conflict-afflicted individuals in their path towards resettlement
- We have strengthened host communities by offering job opportunities and building a sense of community both online and offline
In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?
Objective 1: Ease the pressures on host countries
By offering freelance opportunities to refugees, NaTakallam strives to directly uplift those who are at risk of financial instability, enabling them to earn an income during transitional periods of displacement, resettlement, or reception. Moreover, in exceptional situations, such as Lebanon’s refugee crisis, we provide work opportunities for refugees and their host community alike. All of NaTakallam’s tutors, translators, and interpreters are provided with training and mentorship designed to prepare them for better financial stability in their host communities, breaking the cycle of poverty for future generations. An improved financial situation is a necessary foundation, but will be incomplete without an element of community building and cultural exchange that we aim at fostering through engagement sessions, collaborations with NGOs and organizations on the ground and the creation of vibrant online communities that bring refugees, their host communities, and language learners together.
Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance
NaTakallam enables refugees to be financially independent and socially integrated, thereby safely including them in the economy, advancing their digital literacy and soft skills through (vocational) training, and reducing their vulnerability. Unlike most livelihood programs, which often rely on unsustainable external funding, NaTakallam recognizes that refugees, displaced people, and their host communities have valuable skills for which there exists a market and that instead of being the passive recipients of aid, refugees can and should have action space and a voice in society.
Objective 3: Expand access to third-country solutions
One of the fundamental points in UNHCR’s roadmap to third-country solutions is encouraging academic and research institutions to “generate, translate and disseminate evidence to inform policies” that can support good practices. To date, NaTakallam has partnered with 300+ academic institutions (including universities and schools such as Yale, Columbia, and Georgetown) with the goal of changing the narrative around refugees through education and empowerment. By building bridges between refugees and young learners who participate in language classes or cultural exchange sessions, displaced people reclaim their story and raise awareness. NaTakallam has encouraged large-scale impact by providing tailored individual sessions to more than 1,441 students. We have also organized cultural exchange and language learning programs in 170 K12 schools, community organizations, and conferences, engaging with approximately 8,000 people.
Education changes the narrative around refugees as passive recipients to aid, and it pushes the language learners on the other end to have a better understanding of why refugees are fleeing their homes. This often drives them towards taking action to support refugee initiatives in a deeper capacity — getting involved with local resettlement agencies, engaging in advocacy efforts on behalf of refugees, and so forth.
NaTakallam aims to not only continue but also expand its operations by increasing language offerings to cater to a broader audience of language learners and clients. Adding new languages will meet the needs of individuals and businesses worldwide. We will also continue to build strong and long-lasting partnerships with academic institutions, including schools and universities, focusing on the continuous training and support of our refugee tutors and translators.
To stay relevant in a rapidly evolving digital landscape, NaTakallam will always embrace technological innovations in language learning and translation services. By leveraging emerging technologies, the organization can enhance its offerings, improve user experiences, and scale its operations efficiently.
Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?
We are always looking for partners and investors to support us in our operations; at this moment, we are particularly in need of support to repackage, further professionalize, and advertize some of our products (especially B2B) in line with what we have found in our market analysis. Moreover, we would like to add additional languages and courses to our list of programs.
We’d also be happy to receive feedback or support in enhancing our impact assessment capabilities. By conducting rigorous evaluations and collecting robust data on social impact metrics, NaTakallam can effectively measure its influence on the livelihoods of tutors, community development, and cross-cultural understanding.
One last element that relies on outside help is outreach and traction; as mentioned, the impact and scale of our good practice relies a lot on public discourse and the news cycle. At the peak of a refugee crisis, media attention might increase, only to dwindle when other, unrelated events happen. As NaTakallam aims to scale its operations and expand its global presence to reach more displaced individuals, support in catalyzing our outreach and our awareness-raising efforts will be invaluable. By reaching a broader audience of learners, clients, and tutors worldwide, NaTakallam can maximize its social impact and contribute to positive change on a global scale.