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.
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.