OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Conversations Unbound (CU)

CU empowers forcibly displaced individuals as paid online Arabic or Spanish language tutors for college students.

Photo of Elise Shea
3 6

Written by

What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Currently, over 70 million people are forcibly displaced—one person becomes displaced from their home every two seconds (UNHCR, 2019). Millions have had their lives disrupted due to human, economic, and/or environmental insecurity, causing many to lose their jobs and put their education on hold. Additionally, many perceive forcibly displaced people to lack skills they can share with their new communities. A Pew Center report found that 51% of European citizens wanted fewer migrants to enter their countries, while surveys in the U.S. found that 75% of registered voters in 2017 said illegal immigration was a very big problem (Connor & Krogstad, 2018). Without institutional frameworks to support refugees and with heightened levels of societal resentment towards these communities, forcibly displaced people remain structurally marginalized, which hinders their ability to find job opportunities and connect with the global community. Conversations Unbound (CU) empowers refugees as Arabic or Spanish language tutors for college students. Our programs utilize an innovative technology platform to connect language-learners with CU tutors and provide refugees with a source of income. Tutors are paid per session, and always receive 100% of their earnings. Thus, CU creates job opportunities and improves refugees’ financial stability. CU works with universities to integrate our programs as a core component of their language-learning curricula: completing CU sessions counts towards the student’s final grade. With limited class time to practice speaking skills, these one-on-one sessions have proven to significantly advance students’ conversation abilities. CU tutors also bring their unique cultural perspective and experience of forced displacement to these CU sessions, helping to counter negative perceptions of refugees and open up cross-cultural dialogue.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

CU programs work in Germany, Turkey, Syria, Mexico, and the United States, each with large populations of forcibly displaced people. We identified these regions because our programs are able to impact both refugees and internally displaced people who have fled from their homes in Arab or Central American countries and now face difficulties finding job opportunities. CU is integrated into three universities in the U.S.: Vassar College, Michigan State University and University of Richmond.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

CU recognizes the talents, skills, and spirit of forcibly displaced people and the potential to promote greater cross-cultural awareness, understanding, and relations through our program. CU’s one-on-one tutoring sessions create a bridge between college students and forcibly displaced people, which not only helps improve students’ language speaking skills but also opens up dialogue to share experiences and stories despite cultural, linguistic, and geographic differences.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Fundamental to CU’s mission is reversing the traditional aid dynamic by placing forcibly displaced individuals in positions of power as language tutors. CU believes in the importance of privileging their knowledge, expertise, and intelligence—aspects that are too often overlooked because they are seen as just a “refugee”—as a way to restore dignity to their lives and share their gifts with their global community. Furthermore, CU emphasizes developing rich intercultural understanding and relationships, which we hope brings joy to the lives of our tutors as they are able to connect with students and share their language, culture, and stories. Speaking to this point, one tutor explained, “It is a great pleasure for me to meet with non-native speakers who are passionate about learning the language. I feel that they add a value to my life here." Finally, CU provides increased economic opportunities, which is critical for these people’s long-term growth, development, and well-being.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

By empowering forcibly displaced people as online language tutors, CU addresses this population’s lack of access to job opportunities. CU will measure its impact based on the number of participating tutors, students, and universities and the amount of earnings received per year. CU’s five-year plan is to integrate into 25 universities, which will empower 100 tutors, reach over 1800 students, and provide over $55,000 in earnings to CU tutors. Furthermore, by connecting students with forcibly displaced tutors, CU seeks to counter negative perceptions commonly associated with refugees. As tutors, forcibly displaced people’s voices are elevated, enabling them to bring their unique cultural perspective and experience of forcible displacement to these CU sessions, which is material that cannot be taught through textbooks. CU measures this impact via rigorous semesterly feedback systems to collect qualitative data from students and tutors in order to review CU’s strengths and weaknesses.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

CU was developed to meaningfully engage college students in this global issue while simultaneously empowering refugees. The program is designed to not only place refugees as the storytellers of their experience but also as a way to reverse the traditional flow of aid, in which the refugee is typically the recipient of the assistance. Instead, CU utilizes the skills and talents of refugees so that they can make an income and develop skills that will serve them in the long-term. At the core, CU draws inspiration from the tutors themselves—the true heart and soul of the organization. Take, for example, Alaa Khabaaz. After fleeing from Syria and resettling in Turkey, he has established himself as an incredible online Arabic language tutor, teaching nearly 700 lessons to over 90 different language-learners. Inspired by this talent and determination, CU seeks to empower those like Alaa who want opportunities to continue to improve their lives and impact the students they teach.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

Our tutor team is comprised of Arabic/Spanish tutors from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Mexico and Venezuela who now live in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Germany, Mexico and the US. Our tutor team is 50% female. Because we work with tutors living in a range of different communities, the specific contexts vary greatly, yet all face limited job opportunities and work restrictions. To strive towards inclusivity, CU accepts individuals with all levels of language teaching experience. Furthermore, refugees have played a major role in the development and growth of CU. Our team works with our tutors to create a program that provides meaningful financial support, respects their cultural norms, and enables them to receive payment despite limited access to financial institutions. We hold regular workshops via Skype to understand their day-to-day experiences and adapt CU accordingly. Consulting with our tutors is integral to improving our programs and our impact.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

CU tutors are exceptional individuals who have experienced unimaginable hardship, yet remain incredibly resilient, entrepreneurial, and generous. They have a love of their language and a dedication to sharing their culture. In awe of her tutor’s ability to integrate into a new host community, manage multiple jobs, and be a CU tutor, one CU student said, “My tutor is a superman to me.” Our dedicated tutors are invested in seeing their students improve and is why CU recognizes their talents and passionate spirit by enabling them to earn a source of income. Our programs also help them develop tutoring skills, enabling many to launch their careers and move towards greater economic independence. Furthermore, CU tutors bring their unique cultural perspective and experience of forcible displacement to these CU sessions, creating a space where refugees are the leaders in the conversation about forced displacement and the possible solutions.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Currently we partner with three universities: Vassar College, Michigan State University and University of Richmond. CU is integrated into their Arabic and Spanish classes, in addition to other cultural courses. Our five-year plan is to integrate CU into 25 universities, thus we plan to work with many more university partners in the future. We also partner with Small Projects Istanbul, ReDI School for Digital Integration, The American University of Kurdistan, ECHO100 Plus, and Sin Fronteras to find, train, and on-board language tutors We will partner with Re:Coded—an organization that teaches conflict-affected youth (many of whom are refugees) how to code—to develop our new online platform that will seamlessly connect students and tutors.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Pilot: We have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users. The feasibility of an innovation is tested in a small-scale and real world application (i.e. 3-15% of the target population)

Group or Organization Name

Conversations Unbound

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

All CU staff members are language learners: together our team speaks Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and English. We all have first-hand experience learning languages in a college setting, so we know the importance of having one-on-one conversational experience and how to integrate our programming in new language courses. Additionally, we benefit from the expertise of our board of directors who are professors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, marketing experts, language tutors, program coordinators, and community organizers. Most importantly, our team relies on the expertise of our tutoring team who have taught us how to create a program that meaningfully impacts refugees, addresses the barriers they face, and provides a robust educational experience for students. Despite experiencing great hardship, CU tutors are incredibly resilient, entrepreneurial and generous people who have a love of their language and a dedication to sharing their culture.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

United States

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Washington, DC


Join the conversation:

Photo of Leena Hanna

Conversation Unbound gives forcibly displaced individuals as well as American students an incredible opportunity to be a part of something so big and so important. Truly amazing!

View all comments