FROM PRODUCT DESIGN TO SUPPORTING THE GLOBAL REFUGEE CRISIS – HOW ONE MUSLIM ENTREPRENEUR IS BRIDGING THE REFUGEE LANGUAGE GAP
Muppies Member and Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient, Atif Javed, along with a group of MIT graduates developed a Facebook Messenger app in 2017 connecting thousands of volunteer translators with refugees who need their services in real time. Since launching, Tarjimly has scaled globally and has now launched a mobile app with the objective of reaching 1 million volunteers.
WRITTEN BY: MAHRUKH TAHIR, DIRECTOR OF MARKETING & GLOBAL EVENTS, MUPPIES
The number of displaced people in the world has never been higher. According to the UNHCR, there are over 25.4 million refugees today – with 57% of them coming from South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria (aka Muslim countries). Many of these refugees are being hosted in countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Uganda, Turkey, and across Europe – in short, places where they don’t always know the local language.
In the midst of this ever-escalating crisis where people lack the ability to communicate in everyday, let alone emergency situations with those who can help them, Tarjimly is answering the call (literally) and providing translation services to both refugees and aid workers. Enabled by the simplicity of a cell phone messenger service easily accessible to most (50% of refugees have a smartphone + internet access) – Tarjimly’s solution is powered by community. With a robust global community encompassing thousands of volunteer translators from the US, UK, Canada, and 92 other countries around the world, Tarjimly is able to offer translation and interpreter services in an impressive 80+ languages.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Atif Javed, co-founder of Tarjimly, first learned the importance of language as a young immigrant when his family first moved to the United States, a week after 9/11. At that time, his refugee grandmother couldn’t speak a word of English. He was still a young child, yet his grandmother became dependant on Javed, to the point where she couldn’t go anywhere outside the home or do basic things like groceries without him. For Javed, his experience translating for his grandmother fueled his passion to solve the communication barrier affecting refugees at home and around the world.
As a devout Muslim, his passion and drive to stay involved in the Muslim community to continually give back made him an avid volunteer and an avid Muppies member, accepted early into the organization while still an intern. This passion, coupled with his experience developing products at consumer software at companies like Tesla, Apple, and Oracle, enabled him with the skills to tackle the problem at hand.
“I worked in big tech for years, but I grew tired of optimizing ads and making rich people’s lives easier. With the Muslim travel ban in place, I knew I wanted to do something more to give back… so I started working on a side project, Tarjimly, which literally means “translate for me”… my friends and I would come home from our jobs and build Tarjimly all night.”
STRATEGICALLY TAPPING INTO STRENGTHS
For Javed and his co-founder, Aziz Alghunaim, Tarjimly tapped into something that was easy to do for them. Aziz speaks Arabic and Javed speaks Urdu, and they both know tech. Together, they agreed that if ever a refugee needed their language skills, for even 20 minutes, they would be more than willing to help.
At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, Javed and Alghunaim began volunteering as remote interpreters.
This was a way for them to help a refugee – anytime, anywhere. Once they were able to master volunteering remotely themselves, they realized they had an idea that others would want to take part in too, and they just needed a way to scale it.
The decision to initially launch Tarjimly on the Facebook Messenger platform was the clear way to scale – as it strategically allowed the founders to connect with volunteers, refugees, and aid workers through a platform they were all already using. In 2017, David Marcus, the VP of Facebook Messenger, shared at F8 how Tarjimly was using Messenger to provide translation services by connecting Murad, a volunteer translator from Morocco, to a family resettling in San Diego.
Since it’s initial launch, Tarjimly has grown rapidly – it’s being backed by organizations like Y Combinator, Fast Forward, Amazon, Facebook, and the UNHCR. It’s also now available more broadly on Android and iOS and continues to own its positioning on Facebook Messenger. In 2019, Tarjimly aims to grow faster than ever before with the launch of a mobile app which will rapidly expand its potential reach.
In 2018 alone, Tarjimly connected 7,000 translators and interpreters to 15,000 refugees and aid workers in every scenario imaginable, including: getting groceries, medical check-ups, rescue operations, and even asylum interviews. In 2019, Javed defines success for Tarjimly as having 1 million volunteer translators helping 100,000 refugees.
He explained the organization will aim to reach their goal by doing the following:
- Launching Mobile App
- Growing Corporate Social Responsibility & NGO Partnership Relationships
- Launching a Certified Translator & Paid Refugee Program
HAVING THE RIGHT TEAM IS ESSENTIAL TO SCALE
Javed believes that Tarjimly is best poised to be a solution for NGOs beyond just translating and interpreting services, because of the power of the team behind it.
“The team is unique because we are representative of those who are from immigrant and refugee communities. But what sets us apart, and gives us our edge, is our technical strength to build software and products for the humanitarian space. We envision Tarjimly will become the go-to software for huge problems in the humanitarian space with a whole suite of services to help an NGO on a smart platform using machine-learning.”
Javed explains how they have top talent including multiple PhDs on the team working on machine-learning models. The technical prowess of the team is what makes Tarjimly powerful, and machine-learning enables Tarjimly to match volunteers with refugees in seconds.
“In the humanitarian space you don’t usually get our type of people – Silicon Valley tech nerds – working on this, but we’ve been able to do that because we care a lot about this problem given our backgrounds – some of us are Palestinian, Syrian, or have family who came here as refugees.”
HOW MUPPIES CAN HELP BE A PART OF THE SOLUTION
Having benefited from Muppies and having been a committee leader for a number of years, Javed explained that Muppies members are well positioned to support and help scale Tarjimly’s efforts.
- Sign Up as a Volunteer Translator – Any skill level is encouraged to join the network, with the average session taking only 20 minutes, it is a flexible commitment that anyone can do. Download the app or go to www.tarjimly.org.
- Connect Tarjimly With CSR Efforts at Your Company – Tarjimly offers a corporate volunteering program and aims to build lasting partnerships with CSR teams at top companies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with the team and bring Tarjimly to your workplace.
- Join the Tarjimly Team – Tarjimly needs volunteer engineers, marketers, and ambassadors to build the product and reach the goal of 1 million volunteers. Submit an application at www.tarjimly.org/joinTeam.