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Paper Airplanes: Using Tech to Give Refugees Educational Opportunities

We provide education through Skype to conflict-affected individuals and foster cross-cultural relationships between youth.

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According to the UN, the world is facing the largest number of displaced persons since World War II; over 65.3 million people are displaced by disaster, war, or violence to find refuge elsewhere, destabilizing individuals, their families and communities. In Syria, where over 11 million have been forced to leave their homes, 1.75 million children and youth were out of school in the 2015/16 school-year. People are not just fleeing their homes; they also leave education and careers behind. Formal education for youth has been interrupted, and opportunities for essential knowledge and skills acquisition have been curtailed by the violence. For those who remain in place, violent outbreaks limit their capacity to continue normal life. 

Paper Airplanes' is connecting refugees to educational opportunities through Skype. We match conflict-affected individuals with our volunteer tutors for one-on-one personal language and professional skills instruction via Skype. Our goal isn’t just to provide free and accessible instruction to those who need it most, but to foster relationships and understanding between tutors and students. We believe human connection is a powerful force in promoting tolerance, and we hope to promote cooperation between cultures. Currently, we provide English, Turkish, and Computer Science Coding courses to Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Europe, and inside of Syria.

From June 2014 to December 2016, when the program achieved 501(c) 3 status in the United States, Paper Airplanes focused on developing its English tutoring program. In just two years, Paper Airplanes has grown from 10 pairs to over 320, and the number of student applicants has risen each term, reaching over 600 applicants in January 2017. Our digital outreach has allowed us to reach across continents, between war zones and through countrysides, touching students and language learners who may otherwise be inaccessible. Once students sign up they are interviewed by two Student Directors - both Syrian refugees and former Paper Airplanes students - who ask about their teacher preferences, why they want to learn English, and if the students have had or currently have any direct involvement with any armed groups. Then, students are matched with tutors based on gender, language skills and age. The goal is to match tutors and students with similar language skills. On the tutor end, former volunteers, friends and classmates posted the sign up across their news feeds, relying heavily on social media and word of mouth. Paper Airplanes also worked with Students Organize for Syria, a national student organization aimed at harnessing activism around the Syrian crisis. 


Our Turkish program launched in November 2016. We matched six students with individual Turkish tutors, who have been meeting once per week over Skype to practice Turkish. They have a list of additional practice resources online to use for instructional purposes. The Turkish Program Director Kinda al-Zouby is a Syrian refugee currently living in Istanbul and getting her Master's Degree. She knows first-hand the importance of learning Turkish here, and is dedicated to expanding and improving the Turkish program.

In the Women in Tech program, women can learn to code right in their own homes. We are focusing on JavaScript and Python, two of the most common computer languages sought by employers. Once mastered, these languages not only improve their likelihood of employability, but allow them to work remotely. As the global economy continues to move towards digitization - more than 50% of jobs require some computer training - we want to help empower refugee women to access the market. This program officially launched on February 13. We have a class of six girls this term, located in Syria, Turkey and Canada. The girls meet twice per week as a group to receive instruction from Sarah Geselowitz, the program director, who is based in New York. The girls have also been matched with individual mentors, who assist them with homework and additional questions outside of the class. At the end of the course, the girls will each build their own websites in an effort to help them build online portfolios.

Finally, our pilot Youth Exchange Program launched in February 2017. It connects high school classes from the U.S. with Syrian refugee high school classes, aiming to address rising xenophobia in America and help refugee high school students practice English. Ten high school students from Ward Melville High School have been matched with ten Syrian students. They each meet once a week on Skype, discussing their interests, daily lives, hopes for the future, and of course English. In the spring, the high school will fundraise for their students, raising money for necessary school supplies. The 'Ataa School is an independently run Syrian school serving over 2,000 Syrian students. Addressing the lack of educational access to young students in Reyhanli, Turkey, the school is helping close the gap. Many have dreams to attend universities, but need high levels of English. Paper Airplanes is providing English buddies to help the students practice and improve their English, and connect them with peers halfway across the world.


Our vision is to provide free, personalized courses to those who need it most. We hope to continue expanding the number of students we serve as well as the courses we provide, focusing on language and professional skills that can empower refugees and others affected by conflict. Our programs are designed as supplementary lessons to help refugees eventually gain access to employment or higher education, giving them the tools necessary to rebuild their lives. We see technology as a powerful tool in connecting and understanding, and we want to harness its capabilities to provide lessons to those around the world who need it. We also believe in the power of human connection, and as we continue to grow, we will remain steadfast in our commitment to one-on-one, personal instruction. We stand not just for a world with equal opportunity, but for one in which we are connected to each other. We believe deeply in our mission, and look forward to expanding our services worldwide. 

Explain your idea

Paper Airplanes provides digital education to individuals affected by conflict, currently serving mostly Syrians affected by the Syrian civil war. We use digital technology to close the acute and expanding education gap for Syrians, focusing on language skills, professional skills, and cross-cultural understanding between tutors and students. We currently run an English language program, a Turkish language program, a woman in tech program that teaches women to code, and a youth exchange program that connects high school classes from the US to Syrian refugee high school classes. Our digital outreach has allowed us to reach across continents, between war zones and through countrysides, touching students and language learners who may otherwise be inaccessible. Students sign up using a digital form, filling out basic contact information and educational history. Once students sign up, they are interviewed by two Student Directors - both Syrian refugees and former Paper Airplanes students - who ask about their teacher preferences, why they want to learn English, and if the students have had or currently have any direct involvement with any armed groups. Then, students are matched with tutors based on gender, language skills and age. The goal is to match tutors and students with similar language skills, ages and gender preferences when applicable. On the tutor end, former volunteers, friends and classmates posted the sign up across their news feeds, relying heavily on social media and word of mouth. Paper Airplanes also worked with Students Organize for Syria, a national student organization aimed at harnessing activism around the Syrian crisis. In just two years, Paper Airplanes has grown from 10 pairs to over 320. The tutors and students meet for 10 weeks, following a detailed four-level English language curriculum and mentored by program managers, who help pairs navigate challenging situations and provide additional resources requested by students. Students take three exams throughout the term, helping them measure their language improvement. Ultimately, we encourage tutors to serve not just as language instructors but also as friends, learning about their students' lives and helping them with individualized support.

Who Benefits?

Our students sign up for Paper Airplanes typically because they are looking to settle into their new host communities, to gain an employable skill such as English, or to attend a higher university abroad. Many students at Paper Airplanes also hope to take either the TOEFL or IELTS exams, often used by employers or higher educational institutions to determine which candidates are qualified. Many of our students inside of Syria have little access to English courses, or are supplementing their courses with a tutor at Paper Airplanes. Students use Paper Airplanes as a rare and accessible free way to access English learning. English courses and test preparation courses often come with hefty fees: in Hatay, Turkey for example, where 18 of our students live, there are currently no free test preparation courses for refugees living there. Language remains a significant barrier for refugees, trapping them by circumstance.

How is your idea unique?

We found only three organizations using video technology to provide education. Kiron, a German education NGO that provides accredited courses online, Natakallum, an American startup paying refugees to tutor students in Arabic, and Syrian Kids Foundation, which matches students at Concordia University with Syrian students at the Al-Salam School in Reyhanli to tutor them once a week in English. Paper Airplanes fits a unique niche in the educational nonprofit world: we are digital, which allows us to reach those who may not have access to formal English instruction and we are offering personal tutoring instead of recorded videos or large impersonal classrooms. Paper Airplanes has embraced a larger, more scalable and cost effective model. We are harnessing the widespread volunteering power and interest from English speakers around the world who are passionate about tutoring and doing their part to help mitigate the repercussions of the global refugee crisis.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

In the summer 2013, Founder Bailey Ulbricht spent two months volunteering in Reyhanli, a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border. While there 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 pilot program with 10 pairs of tutors and students meeting once a week over Skype. The program grew dramatically, expanding each term she ran it. She began recruiting volunteers to help run the program. After graduating in 2015 she spent a year in Turkey, which is when Paper Airplanes grew to include a Turkish program. In December 2016, the organization received nonprofit status in the United States, and is now looking for funding. In January 2017, the team expanded to include 5 former students who were eager to join the group. We have grown to where we are because we have a young, energetic and passionate team. We believe strongly in the power of the Internet to transform educational access for those who need it most. For now, we are focusing on the MENA region, targeting communities affected by the Syrian conflict. In the near future, we hope to use our model throughout the world, providing education to conflict-affected communities and breaking cross-cultural boundaries.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

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I love how organic and grassroots the development has been, and how spontaneous and innovate the project is.... So much potential for impact in our region and beyond.