(Photo via Paper Airplanes on Facebook)
In 2013, while studying at Carleton College in Minnesota, Bailey Ulbricht spent two months on the Turkish/Syrian border. There she met Syrian refugees who wanted to return to school but couldn’t — Turkish universities required English language skills that many lacked. Ulbricht figured she could help, at least in the case of a few friends.
So once she returned to Minnesota Ulbricht began holding informal English lessons via Skype. She’d sit down for an hour or so and guide a student through a conversation or some test prep. It was very small-scale. But pretty soon word got out about Ulbricht’s “service” and suddenly strangers were reaching out to her, asking for help with their own English skills.
“I thought wow, why don’t I outsource this to some of my friends?” Ulbricht recalls.
And so she did. By June 2014, when she was a junior in college, she had a pilot of what would become Paper Airplanes up and running. It involved 10 of her college classmates paired one-on-one with 10 Syrian students.
Today, Ulbricht boasts 320 pairs in her English language program and, as of December 2016, an officially incorporated nonprofit. The pairs meet once a week for one hour and talk using Skype. She’s developed a curriculum for all to follow, with lesson plans at four different levels of English proficiency. Syrian students who don’t speak English very well are matched with American students who speak Arabic, while advance English speakers who just need a little help brushing up their skills before a test might be paired with someone who speaks no Arabic at all.
“We know that we’re filling a need,” Ulbricht told Technical.ly. It hasn’t been difficult at all to find Syrian students interested — the challenge, really, is keeping up with demand. Ulbricht, who grew up locally and now lives in D.C., has a “staff” of 21 who help her make the matches by hand. All however, including Ulbricht, are volunteers. Ulbricht herself works two side jobs, she said, just to pay her rent.
But just maybe it won’t always be this way. Paper Airplanes recently launched a GoFundMe campaign looking to raise some cash to pay its staff. And Ulbricht has all kinds of ideas on how the model could grow to include tutoring on other topics — computer science, for example. She’s already running small pilot programs.
It’s heartening to see technology play a connecting, educational role in such a horrific humanitarian crisis. But Paper Airplanes is never far from war, and all involved know it. Many of the 320 Syrian students are still inside Syria, Ulbrict said, and this raises various difficulties. The internet connection often isn’t very good, for one. But there’s a much more dramatic effect — when bombs fall students tend to disappear for a few days before their volunteer teachers hear anything about their whereabouts and well-being. It’s scary, and it’s also the reality. It’s just something you’ve got to be prepared for.