Where We Started
We started small and with humble ambitions: serving students in need through Skype.
In the summer 2013, our founder Bailey Ulbricht spent two months volunteering in Reyhanli, a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border, where she met dozens of young college-aged Syrian students desperate to complete their university degrees. After she returned to the United States, she began Skyping a few of them to help them practice English.
Soon, young Syrian refugees she did not personally know were reaching out to her, requesting English lessons. She realized she could ask some of her friends to help, and in June 2014, she ran the first Paper Airplanes English program with 10 tutors from her alma mater, Carleton College, and Syrian students she knew. Throughout the rest of her time at Carleton she grew the program, recruiting tutors among the student body and neighboring colleges, seeking advice from professors, and advertising to Syrians through her Syrian friends and social media.
In December 2016, the program received official nonprofit status in the United States, and in January 2017, the team expanded to include 25 staff members, 5 of whom were former students eager to join the group.
We believe strongly in the power of the Internet to transform educational access for those who need it most. We focus on the skills learners need to access future training, employment and higher education opportunities in their country of residence or abroad. Through live and personalized instruction, we further hope to break down politicized cultural barriers and encourage cross-cultural understanding. For now, we are focusing on the MENA region, and particularly those who are affected by the Syrian conflict.
Why Languages and Skills?
Barely 1% of university-aged refugees are attending college courses.
According to UNHCR, only 1% of university-aged refugees are currently enrolled in university, compared to 34% worldwide. Yet a 2014 study conducted by the Refugee Studies Centre found that refugee youth highly value and desire education, and are actively looking to matriculate at a university or secure skills necessary to obtain employment. Language acquisition is often overlooked but incredibly necessary for those affected by conflict to access opportunities - whether that be further training, education, or employment. English remains the most common language in the world for university-level instruction, is required for skills training like coding, and is a requirement for entrance into schools in many countries where refugees reside. Host country languages like Turkish and French can further eliminate barriers to public education, institutional support, and employment. And skills training allows those affected to bypass formal university degrees, which can be unattainable, in favor of working in growing international sectors like technology, graphic design, journalism, or nonprofit work.
The Multiplying Factor
Education and skills training allows conflict-affected individuals to unlock opportunities and contribute to the societies in which they live. Vocational training and language learning assists refugees in playing “an active role in their own integration, enabling them and their children to ‘be more successful and more active participants in their society.” Education can promote conflict resolution, tolerance, and respect for human rights, and it increases the earning potential of students. It can foster social cohesion and provide the skills and knowledge needed to rebuild tattered economic and physical infrastructures throughout the MENA region. It can also steer youth away from joining armed militant groups, providing a necessary outlet for fulfillment and belonging. Providing these tools benefits not just individuals but their communities and the societies in which they live. Providing and language instruction is something we should care deeply about, both from a strategic and moral standpoint.
By using Skype we have the potential to reach thousands of students and adult learners in need, providing individualized instruction that fits the needs of each beneficiary. As human beings, we have a right to education and an obligation to help those in need access it. We know that the world's future depends on multi-lateral cooperation to break down transnational problems, and education remains a major component. We know that by fostering personal relationships, mentoring goes beyond the virtual classroom into the lives of both our tutors as well as our learners.