This App Helps Give Refugees An Education
PC Magazine|October 2018

To bridge educational losses suffered by Syrians displaced by war, a new accelerator looks to technology and personal connections.

Michelle Z. Donahue

Ready to read?” I asked.

A slight pause. “Hi, yes,” Yara replied.

With a soft lilt, Yara began to read “Stone Soup,” a bedtime story about hungry travelers who persuade recalcitrant villagers to make them dinner. She hesitated on a few words, and I offered a bit of help with her pronunciation. Otherwise, Yara sailed through the story with aplomb.

Our session, lighthearted and quick, felt like a sit-down with my own children but with an extra jolt of triumph. Yara, 14, read to me from her home in Lebanon via Kindi, a reading-buddy smartphone app that lets her work on her English anytime she feels like it.

For Yara, learning English is both a passion and a predicament: She’s a Syrian refugee living in Saadnayel, hometown for more than 35,000 Syrians in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, about an hour east of Beirut. The team of developers and designers building the app has worked there for more than a year in an all-girls’ school operated by a Lebanese nonprofit, the Kayany Foundation.

Before Kindi, Yara had no one to practice with. Though it wearied her, she would study alone for hours every day, determined to boost her language skills. The app gives her a way to reach out and find someone to practice with—and they can be anywhere in the world.

Kindi (whose name was inspired by 9th-century Muslim philosopher al-Qindi) is still in beta, and I was the first non-Arabic speaker to use it with one of the 15 Syrian students who are testing it. From my desk in Maryland, I could short press a word on my screen, and it would highlight in yellow on Yara’s end, alerting her to an issue with the word. A long press added the word to a practice list at the end of the story. In a call with another student, we found that natural hesitations around tough words were good moments to do a quick correction, just as I do when my own children read to me. Our call, conducted over voiceover-IP (VoIP), was crystal clear.

Mike Clarke, one of a team of three working to develop the app, was ecstatic.

“I’m happy it worked!” he said afterward. “It hasn’t been easy to get to this point, so it’s really exciting to start seeing things come together.”

The Kindi service came to life after Clarke and his collaborators, graphics designer Leen Naffaa and computer scientist Ahmad Ghizzawi, were accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Refugee Learning Accelerator (RLA) in late 2017. The three had collaborated on various United Nations initiatives in previous years and were drawn to the accelerator as a way to advance a passion project.

“We would like to be able to create a world where every person, regardless of location and financial means, always has someone to learn with,” Clarke said. “There are kids who go to bed every night without someone to read with. It’s easier for someone to swipe through Tinder than it is for a kid to find someone to read with. That’s unacceptable.”

ACCELERATING LEARNING

The unique MIT accelerator’s overarching goal from the start was to build capacity—to foster a new network of connections between the tech and Syrian refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon, said Genevieve Barrons, who led the RLA through July 2018. Rather than functioning as the usual tech-world startup factory, the RLA instead sought out interdisciplinary Middle East-based teams who were interested in addressing a persistent problem in the region: access to education for Syrian refugees.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, an estimated 5.5 million Syrians have been forced from their homes, fleeing a country torn by civil war. Though some have filtered across oceans to settle in Europe, Canada, and the United States, the majority escaped to nearby Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. Syrian refugees have faced brutally cold winters in substandard shelters, evictions from temporary camps, ongoing harassment, and crippling lack of access to resources, including education.

In an article for University World News, Barrons wrote that prior to the start of the war, around a quarter of the Syrian population was enrolled in post-secondary education. Yet without transcripts or a way to prove their knowledge and skills, educated Syrians who left to resettle in a new country were left with few options to find work or to continue a university degree program.

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