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Paper Airplanes: Connect, Learn, Soar!

We bridge gaps in refugees’ language and skills-based training, enabling them to pursue their higher education and employment goals.

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

Of the nearly 70 million people displaced by conflict and persecution, approximately 30% are in the Middle East. Consequently, educational and employment opportunities are severely limited. Countless refugees highly value and seek out education. However, in their attempts to enter university, gain skills training, or secure employment, they face overwhelming barriers—namely the proper language and skills training. Language proficiency (such as English and Turkish) is a prerequisite for entrance to universities in many host countries as well as for many remote job opportunities. There are few free language courses available, and most remain inaccessible to those inside active conflict zones, in rural areas, or without transportation. Paper Airplanes offers a solution for these individuals in the MENA region. Using video-conferencing technology to connect volunteer tutors and instructors with individuals affected by conflict, we have created a globally scalable model that can ensure that refugees have the skills they need to integrate into their host communities, and they are equipped with the tools they need to pursue higher education and employment. Our 5 programs: English, Turkish, Youth Exchange, Women in Tech, and Citizen Journalism, look to empower individuals affected by conflict so they can thrive educationally and professionally. In our language programs, each student is paired with a tutor who adapts the curriculum to meet their specific needs. They meet for 1.5 hours each week and are supported by our staff who check in with them regularly. After students complete final projects or pass the final exams, they receive certificates of achievement, and we work to connect them with further education and employment opportunities through our partners. By building the bridge between human potential and the growing world of virtual education and employment, we empower refugees with social inclusion and economic growth to reach their dreams.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

The majority of our students are Syrian, with nearly 50% currently in Syria. The students displaced are primarily located in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, KSA, and Egypt. We will expand our work to Gaza this fall. In serving these areas, we provide targeted aid where we are most needed, after individuals affected by conflict have seen their education plans upended. By building competence in languages and professional skills, we unlock employment and educational opportunities for our students.

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)

We bridge gaps in refugees’ language and skills-based training, enabling them to pursue their higher education and employment goals. Our online, personalized language and skills training increases access to employment and educational opportunities, which in turn moves us towards a shared future of stability and promise. Through our programs, our students develop the skills to form connections in their new communities as well as with volunteer tutors and instructors from around the world.

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

Paper Airplanes works to provide individuals affected by conflict with their right to education, opportunity, and dignity. Our model is driven by and reaching towards human connection. We believe that the bonds formed through our programs promote inclusivity for refugees and displaced people, who have by definition been excluded. Reconstructing the pathway to education and employment connects our students with the joy and fulfillment of learning and building a career, and crucially, regaining a sense of agency and empowerment in their own story. Students love the experience of learning languages and professional skills through PA. Student feedback demonstrates our impact as students thank us for providing them with opportunities after graduating from our programs and connecting them with tutors who positively influence their careers. Our impact stems from our commitment to fostering individual connections, mutual respect, and a sense of community.

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

Our students join PA to gain the language proficiency and skills necessary to pursue higher education and employment. Therefore, our success is measured by how many of our students are prepared to continue their education and become employed after completing our programs. We also look at how many students we are able to directly connect to relevant opportunities through our expanding network of partners. PA’s students are ideally situated to participate in the digital economy. Because our online language and skills-based courses are virtual, our students become familiar with web-based tools and resources that enable them to engage with the broader world. This empowers them to seek remote work with organizations that employ refugees and conflict-affected individuals who have English and tech skills. We are also committed to providing a meaningful volunteer experience for our tutors and mentors, which we measure based on whether they would recommend this opportunity to others.

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

Several organizations provide conflict-affected individuals with educational and employment opportunities around the Middle East. However, these programs have barriers to entry—namely language proficiency or technical proficiency—which create gaps between the students in need and the services offered. We are the bridge that allows students to pursue their education and employment goals, and critically, we do so at no cost to the student. We have developed programs that provide live, one-on-one instruction by drawing upon a large global pool of volunteers interested in helping their conflict-affected peers. This individualized support allows students to focus on their goals while building relationships with their tutors. Similarly, tutors enjoy bonding with their students, and the ability to learn from each other. Our high number of returning students and volunteer tutors points to the fulfillment they gain from the PA experience, and demonstrates that our work builds connection.

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

Individuals affected by conflict in MENA see their education plans disrupted and their professional ambitions upended. However, thanks to widespread technology access, they are positioned to participate in our online language and skills-based courses. While participating, our students become familiar with web-based tools and resources that enable them to engage with the broader world. Until the war in Syria, many students attended university. However, their English language programs were not as robust as those in Jordan or Lebanon, meaning that they now face more challenges in integrating into English-heavy education systems either in host countries or remotely. And for the many Syrians who now live in Turkey, learning Turkish presents a similar barrier to integration. Building competence in languages and professional skills can unlock employment and educational opportunities for our students to help them pursue their goals and to secure employment.

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

We solicit our students’ feedback via surveys and focus groups, and by hiring students as staff to ensure that we understand their needs and can design our programs accordingly—they understand the barriers and challenges they face better than anyone. Students told us they needed more speaking practice to open up job opportunities, which is why we launched English conversation groups to give students a dedicated space to practice. Similarly, our Turkish curriculum focuses on speaking because students told us that they wanted to be able to communicate in daily situations. Our talented team of volunteer tutors, instructors and staff bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our organization, and we strive to invest in their development and create an environment where all members of our community feel free to innovate. We launched a webinar series to help our tutors improve their teaching, and our Women in Tech and Citizen Journalism courses were inspired by community suggestions.

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

Paper Airplanes believes that our work is always stronger, together. We have partnerships with MIT ReACT and Nexford University to provide our students with access to higher education, Workaround to connect our students with remote work opportunities and Talent Beyond Boundaries, Jusoor, and Syrian Youth Empowerment to recruit students for our programs. It is opportunities like this that make PA unique; we not only provide free language and skills-based learning, but also serve as a bridge between our graduates and other opportunities available to them. We are working to connect with more accredited academic institutions and certificate or degree providers to provide additional learning opportunities for our students. We are also finalizing partnerships with several other organizations working on the ground in the Middle East with refugees and host communities who are searching for language and technical skills education opportunities for the youth and adults they engage.

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

  • Technology-enabled: Existing approach is more effective or scalable with the addition of technology

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Early Adoption: We have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have proof of user uptake (i.e. 16% to 49% of the target population or 1,000 to 50,000 users).

Group or Organization Name

Paper Airplanes

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

Paper Airplanes provides displaced individuals with the language and skills they need to pursue their education and employment goals. Since our founding in 2014, we have strived to create connection: between our students and tutors, between students and students, and between our staff and everyone involved with the organization. We have a record of successfully implementing virtual programs, and are committed to working with partners who can help us better serve our students. Our volunteer-based model is sustainable and scalable, but we are in need of support in order to meet the growing demand for our services, diversify our offerings, and ensure that our staff are adequately compensated. Specifically, this funding would allow us to solidify our Turkish program, which we launched as a pilot, to continue to help students integrate into their host communities in Turkey. Further, we would hire a student director to connect students with more jobs and higher education opportunities.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

USA; Jordan [Remote]

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Los Angeles/CA; Amman [Remote]


Join the conversation:

Photo of Uchenna Okafor

Hello Gabrielle Wimer, it's indeed great to design for the social and economic integration of refugees. Big thanks for this courage. Nonetheless, is there any provision in your design to accommodate the blind, deaf, dumb, lame, etc among them? You may agree that disabled persons are the most vulnerable of all times and in all situations. Often found at the intersect of discrimination, social rejection, illiteracy, unskilled, unemployed, homeless and displaced.

Photo of Gabrielle Wimer

Thank you for your comment Uchenna! We don't currently have specific programs in place for differently abled individuals, but we do strive to make our programs inclusive and accessible and will certainly continue working towards this goal.