In These Divisive Times, Program Pairs Students with Refugees Around the...

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In These Divisive Times, Program Pairs Students with Refugees Around the World

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Mar 21, 2019

In These Divisive Times, Program Pairs Students with Refugees Around the World
Ghenwah Kharbeet, a Syrian refugee, speaks with K-12 students on a video call.

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

In Jill Armstrong’s social studies classes, when students learn about other countries, they don’t just learn from textbooks and news articles, which she says can seem abstract and elusive to teenagers. Armstrong, who teaches at a high school in Eastern Kentucky, likes to weave in “that human aspect, because it makes it more real,” she says.

Case in point: About once a week for the last several months, Armstrong’s humanities students have participated in an hour-long conversation with Ghenwah Kharbeet, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee—only, the students are in class in the tiny town of Greenup, Ky., and Kharbeet is 5,000 miles away in Turkey.

During their time together, Kharbeet, whose face is projected on a SMART Board at the front of the classroom, urges the students to ask her anything, and they do.

They ask her about home (“What do you miss most?”), about life in Turkey (“Have you made many friends?”), about her religion (“If you’re a Muslim, why don’t you wear a hijab?”). They ask about her favorite foods, music and hobbies, and about the civil war in Syria. In return, she asks them about America—about the traditions of Halloween and Thanksgiving, the sports they follow and how the fast food tastes.

“I tell them about my dreams, my kids, what I want to do and where I want to go,” Kharbeet says. “At the end, a lot of them say, ‘Thank you, it made me realize you’re a real person like us.’ It’s really a lot of fun.”

NaTakallam Greenup Ghenwah
Ghenwah Kharbeet, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey, tells high school students in Greenup, Ky., about her life and family. (Image credit: Jill Armstrong)

To Armstrong, the experience her students get from their regular video calls with Kharbeet is invaluable.

“I really have become more passionate about global awareness and getting my students to see the world beyond what we have here, in Eastern Kentucky,” Armstrong says. “I tell them, you know, the whole concept of why we learn about other countries is to understand and be knowledgeable. You don’t have to agree. But it’s about understanding and learning and growing.”

Through Kharbeet, at least 55 students in Greenup County High School have gotten a glimpse of what it’s like to be a refugee, which has challenged the stereotypes and generalizations they may have picked up online or in their communities about Islam and Arabic culture.

They’ve learned that Kharbeet was studying English literature at Damascus University when she fled the country three-and-a-half years ago. That she was passing through Turkey on her way to France, but never made it to her final destination because she met and fell in love with another refugee, Awad, who is now her husband. That Kharbeet is now a mother to two little boys.

Armstrong met Kharbeet through NaTakallam (Arabic for “we speak”), an organization that connects displaced persons with learners all over the world who want to practice their language skills or find out more about a different culture, then compensates them for their work.

NaTakallam was founded in 2015, when Aline Sara, a Lebanese-American graduate student at Columbia University, was struggling to find someone with whom she could practice her conversational Arabic.

“[Sara] saw so many Syrians who were qualified and well-educated but unemployed because of discrimination or weren’t legally allowed to work,” says Christina Meyer, the K-12 programs officer. So Sara brought together an informal network of friends who wanted to improve their language abilities and matched them with displaced persons whose native tongue was Arabic.

Since then, NaTakallam has expanded to offer lessons in four different languages and has hired displaced persons from more than 10 countries, including Syria, Iran, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In late 2017, it launched its K-12 program, which delivers language and cultural lessons in Arabic and Spanish (with Persian and French available soon) to students on platforms such as Skype and Zoom.

“Our goal is to challenge the narrative about what it means to be a refugee, an asylum seeker, and to create narratives of empowerment and dignity rather than victimhood,” Meyer explains. “To be able to talk to someone and hear [about] their passion for drawing, their degree in Turkish literature or that they’re a professional volleyball player, helps build empathy and has provided really touching experiences for students.”

In the year-and-a-half since the K-12 program launched, NaTakallam has served more than 4,000 students in 120 different schools across the globe. Some turn to the company to support language learning, especially when native Arabic speakers are uncommon in the area, like in Kansas or North Carolina, Meyer explains. But a lot of schools use the service to “combat anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia,” she adds. “Now we’re trying to do that with Latin American displaced persons.”

The primary purpose of NaTakallam is to meet a global need—and not the one for language services. “Our goal is to help provide a stable and substantial income to displaced persons,” Meyer says. The company sells K-12 sessions with “conversation partners” (CPs)—its term for people like Kharbeet—in one-, three- and 10-lesson packages, which cost between $125 and $150 per session, depending on how much is purchased at once. Depending on the partnership, she says, between 35 and 75 percent of that price goes directly to the CPs.

For schools, that’s a steep price. Grant funding from the Qatar Foundation International has allowed NaTakallam to provide lessons to 86 schools in nearly a dozen countries, at no cost to the schools, Meyers says. That’s how Armstrong’s students in Kentucky have been able to meet regularly with Kharbeet.

But when that option is no longer available, Meyers suggests schools look at it like this: Each session costs about the same as a field trip for a U.S. school. Is NaTakallam not, in many ways, its own kind of field trip?

Kharbeet says that NaTakallam has been a “real life-saver” for her family. Once they settled in Turkey, her husband enrolled in Istanbul University to finish his Arabic literature degree. When he graduates, Kharbeet will go back and finish her own degree. But until then, she’s grateful to have a source of income that allows her to stay home with her 2-year-old and 6-month-old sons.

“For me, it’s a perfect job,” she says, adding that she genuinely enjoys talking with the students every day. “When I see schools trying to learn Arabic, I feel very happy. Our language is accepted there. Our culture is accepted there.”

She adds: “The kids always ask me, ‘What do you want us to do for you?’ And I say, ‘Just be nice when you meet a Syrian. We need your kindness.’”

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