Teaching his native Arabic to students online has been a game changer for Syrian refugee Sami as he makes a fresh start in the UK.
The Aleppo University engineering graduate says that working for an online language learning platform in London has helped him find his feet and motivation as he begins life anew.
The tutors at the start-up firm Chatterbox are all refugees and their work helps them to integrate and adapt to their new surroundings.
“I think language is building bridges between people, because the language is not only in the language itself, the speaking or the words, it’s also the culture,” said the 35-year-old refugee, who arrived in the UK about two years ago.
The school is the brainchild of Mursal Hedayat, who came up with the idea during a trip to refugee camps in Calais in the summer of 2016.
“I noticed that a lot of the people who were there and volunteering, were ordinary British people, but not a lot of them were actually from the kinds of backgrounds that the refugees had come from,” she said.
A refugee herself – her family left Afghanistan when she was a small child – she noticed “gaps in how people were helping, both in Calais and back home in the UK.”
“One of the gaps I noticed was that not a lot of the ventures helping refugees integrate economically, into work, had actually understood just how educated and skilled refugees in the UK were,” she said.
“Think about how much we put into our social and professional lives and how much work goes into getting a degree, how much work goes into developing a successful career, and a lot of that experience, a lot of that human experience is erased, when we try to fit refugees into the same box of unskilled work.”
The idea for Chatterbox was born, and it has now grown to employ 30 refugees from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, who work as tutors and conversation partners giving lessons to individuals, businesses and charities among others, in their native language – ranging from Arabic to Spanish.
Earlier this year, the start-up won the Varkey Foundation’s educational technology award, which recognises innovations destined to have an impact on education in low-income and emerging economies.
Paying something back
Ms Hedayat says the award means the company now has part of the funding they are looking for to scale up the venture.
“An online technology business like ours can scale very well and easily, we want to grow to be able to benefit refugees and learners around the world.”
She wants to see the business move into new markets outside the UK, offer more courses and recruit more staff in countries “where there are even fewer opportunities for refugees”.
Refugees who are working are “able to benefit themselves and they are also able to contribute in taxes”, she says. They also bring a global outlook which can help companies wanting to compete overseas.
Ms Hedayat said that for many of Chatterbox’s tutors, the work is “about actually connecting with European society and European people, it’s about learning about the country and the area that is their new home”.
“They genuinely find their conversations with students really interesting and a vehicle for them to integrate by acquiring knowledge about their new societies that they live in.”
“I think one of the problems about how refugee resettlement has worked up to now is that, we give refugees shelter but then we keep them siloed in geographical and social clusters that keep them isolated from the wider public,” she says.
‘Start again from zero’
For Sami, tutoring has motivated him to go back into education.
He had been working in the United Arab Emirates but his company was forced to make lay-offs.
Unable to stay in the UAE, or return to his homeland, he came to the UK to “start again from zero”.
Initially based in Aberdeen, he found an advert for Chatterbox online.
Ms Hedayat assisted him as he started a new life, introducing him to social activities and helping him to improve his English so that he could apply for a university course.
Sami is now studying for a masters at Warwick University, and when he graduates, is hoping to start working full-time.
In the meantime, he will keep sharing his language and culture.