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Opening A Door Of Hope And Dignity – Aline Sara, CEO and Co-Founder of NaTakallam

Aline Sara
Aline Sara

June 20th marks World Refugee Day – an internationally recognised opportunity, organised by the United Nations, to recognise, honour and celebrate refugees from around the world whilst shining a much-needed spotlight on the conflicts and crises which have forced people to flee their homes in order to seek safety.

Going further, each year, World Refugee Day champions the right for refugees to find economic and social inclusion, as well as to visibly advocate for finding solutions to the root causes of their plights.

Business schools and universities – institutions which exist to educate the next generation, shape future society and find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges, support refugees through education access and support, outreach initiatives and research.

In recognition of World Refugee Day, BlueSky Thinking speaks to business school students and alumni around the world using their experiences, voices and actions to help make the world a better place…

  • Name: Aline Sara
  • Occupation: Social Entrepreneur – NaTakallam
  • Education: INSEAD graduate (INSEAD social entrepreneurship programme in 2019), awarded by Cartier Woman Initiative (initiative created by INSEAD & Cartier to support social / impact entrepreneurs).

What inspired you to start a nonprofit organisation focused on assisting refugees?

The idea behind NaTakallam (“We Speak” in Arabic), which is a social enterprise, is related to my background as a Lebanese woman and my experience in journalism, human rights and conflict resolution, as well as my studies in psychology. It was a result of seeing millions of Syrians in Lebanon, fleeing the immediate violence back home but coming to Lebanon where they were not welcome. With no right to work and other basic forms of human rights, they were robbed of a future and a chance to fully restart their lives. At the same time, due to the current global resettlement system, they have less than a 1% chance of being formally resettled through the UN or other such channels.

That’s why, back in 2015, we were seeing a huge migration flow through the Mediterranean; people were risking their lives to get to a country where they could, once they crossed the border and faced some very dangerous situations, claim asylum and gain permanent legal status. So this refugee crisis combined with my own experience of being someone who had always heard colloquial Arabic at home but was trying to learn it formally, as a journalist, in Lebanon. I was surrounded by many people–journalists and people in humanitarian and international affairs–who were always looking for flexible Arabic-learning programs, because Arabic is a very difficult language and many people–myself included–could not be assigned a conventional level. That was when I had this light-bulb moment: we could leverage the fact that more and more people are using the internet to access training and work. This was in 2015, pre-COVID, so it was a fairly novel idea to combine the rise of the online economy, the digital space, millions of highly-skilled refugees in need of work and people’s need for language services. It became a very simple model where if anyone in the world–say, someone with a journalist profile–wanted to learn Arabic while supporting Syrian refugees, they could do that through NaTakallam. NaTakallam hires and identifies refugees who are highly skilled and can teach through the internet, and that gives them a source of income, dignity and purpose. While they’re not allowed to work locally, they can work through this digital economy and they can even gain friendships with their students abroad.

Could you provide an overview of the services and support that your nonprofit offers to refugees?

As a social enterprise with a double-sided market, NaTakallam impacts two main categories of people. We provide high-quality language services to clients ranging from individuals to academic organisations, private sector groups, government agencies and NGOs. On the other side of the business, the refugees and conflict-affected individuals we support need and receive income from delivering these services, which include one-on-one conversation sessions, translation and interpretation projects, and cultural exchange sessions–all while benefiting from NaTakallam’s community support and training. Through NaTakallam’s network, many have been able to get resettled, trained in educational methods and language teaching and have created long-lasting friendships.

What are some of the biggest challenges your organisation has faced in supporting refugees, and how have you worked to address them?

Some of the biggest challenges have been finding ways to send payments to refugees in hard-to-reach areas or in countries that are heavily sanctioned. Because we work with conflict-affected communities more broadly, some of our employees are in countries where conflict and extreme inflation- with crumbling banking sectors – places like Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq or Venezuela. Another challenge is finding that middle line where we are hiring refugees and people from conflict-affected communities to deliver a very professional and high-quality service while also being sensitive and acknowledging the circumstances in which they work. They often have difficult internet connections, or they have trauma that they’re still dealing with, and sometimes various events can reignite that trauma. So, for example, a lot of Syrians took some time off when the war in Ukraine started. They needed space to digest the news because it triggered harsh memories, echoing the war in Syria, which was also heavily bombed by Russia/Russian-backed forces. These are all aspects that force us to run NaTakallam with a very human and humanitarian mindset, all while ensuring the business mindset is there too, because our goal is to generate income to refugees by selling high-quality services, and to become self-sustainable through our income rather than charitable contributions. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the challenges refugee and conflict-affected individuals face at various levels: physically, psychologically, psychosocially, and physically–due to the challenges of being in displacement and conflict settings.

How did your business education help in your venture?

My background, previous to NaTakallam, was in a completely different sector to business, namely, human rights, journalism, international media, advocacy, psychology and philosophy. The only business education I had was at INSEAD, the Social Entrepreneurship Programme, which was absolutely transformational and very empowering in my entrepreneurial journey – notably my classes with Professor Jasjit Singh, who really goes in-depth into very important nuances that must be understood in this almost overly trending field of social impact. The INSEAD program really helped me embrace the fact that combining both business and deep impact is a constant tightrope balance. Being a non-profit, you are completely in the impact space; being in business you are in the profit space; being in the middle, you have to navigate both lines, thinking of how you can become sustainable and potentially profitable while also being impactful. He explored some extremely powerful nuances and debunked certain myths that we have: for example our obsession around numbers. We often quantify impact by the high numbers of people whose lives have been touched in some way, but without talking about the depth of that impact. He also talked about the risks of growing too quickly, especially in the impact sector, and how there is such a thing as negative impact. When you give in to overly rapid growth–for instance, when investors want you to grow “X-fold” in a very limited amount of time–you can actually counter the positive impact you’ve made.

“The only business education I had was at INSEAD, the Social Entrepreneurship Programme, which was absolutely transformational and very empowering in my entrepreneurial journey…”

Could you share a success story or example that demonstrates the positive impact your organisation has had on the lives of refugees?

The below account has been shared by Ghaith Al Hallak, Syrian Language Partner since 2016 (read more on the Guardian and NBC):

“I’m originally from Hama, Syria. In 2013, I was forced to flee while recovering from a shrapnel injury, as I risked being arrested.

I did what seemed like the best option at the time and fled to Lebanon. However, the Lebanese authorities ordered me to leave in one week.

I found out about NaTakallam at a time I needed it most. NaTakallam gave me an avenue through which I could earn a living – something that was almost impossible in my situation as I didn’t have any papers or permits to legally live and work in Lebanon.

In 2016, a friend connected me with a charity that helps resettle refugees in Italy. The organization helped me to move and start a new life in Padua, where I am pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Political Science at the University of Padua. Last summer, I started a full-time job as a news editor.”

This next story has been shared by Sayed Adiban, Afghan Language Partner since 2017 (read more here);

“I fled Afghanistan again because I studied French language and literature, worked with ISAF/ NATO and another French NGO for education – which was criminalised under the Taliban. And there’s migrating too – the artistic way, this couldn’t have happened without NaTakallam. 

Working with this beautiful organisation gives me the opportunity to migrate and virtually travel around the world, learn new cultures, exchange ideas and share the real experiences of refugees.

NaTakallam is a door of hope and dignity; a home where I can exhale the pains of being forced to leave family and dreams; currently in Indonesia, we are not allowed to work, access formal education, healthcare or travel within the country.

It’s my honour and pleasure to be part of this amazing NaTakallam family since 2019. We are not only teaching languages, but teaching and learning histories, cultures and making this world a better place for everyone.”

Last year, one of Sayed’s NaTakallam students, Mariam, launched a crowdfunding campaign to help him through one of the few available options: resettlement to Canada via private sponsorship. We are thrilled to share that Sayed has found sponsors in Ottawa, Canada, and only the funding remains for this final step to give him a second chance.

This last example has been shared by Yaroslavna Mykhovych, Ukrainian Language Partner since 2022:

“When I started looking for a job, because from day one [of the war], I became unemployed, I understood that I had to provide for my family, because I am a working member of my family and had been working for four years non-stop before the war started. I didn’t even have the slightest idea in my head that a place like NaTakalam could exist.

Finding this place helped me in both ways: to have some income to provide for my family and to communicate with people to heal my soul in  some way because I love members of the NaTakallam community who bring life to me now. It’s really important.”

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