Updated May 24, 2019

Paper Airplanes-Language and Skills Accessibility for Refugees


Cheryl Hagan

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Emerging as a response to the Syrian crisis, Paper Airplanes is a digital solution to refugee education access. Paper Airplanes provides personalized tutoring through Skype, matching refugee students predominantly in the MENA region with personal tutors. We focus on providing English, Turkish, and computer coding courses to refugees no matter where they are, providing instruction and fostering ...
Emerging as a response to the Syrian crisis, Paper Airplanes is a digital solution to refugee education access. Paper Airplanes provides personalized tutoring through Skype, matching refugee students predominantly in the MENA region with personal tutors. We focus on providing English, Turkish, and computer coding courses to refugees no matter where they are, providing instruction and fostering cross-cultural dialogue. It is a 501(c) 3 registered nonprofit organization.
How does your innovation work?
Paper Airplanes focuses predominantly on English, which is the major language of regional and international universities, as well as most major job sectors. Our main program is the English Tutoring Program, providing students in crisis areas with free English courses through Skype. We have three additional pilot programs, aimed at diversifying our services while relying on the same successful model of our English program. How it Works: 1)Students and tutors apply separately online. They go through a light screening process and then are hand-matched by our staff. 2)After going through an orientation, they are virtually introduced and meet for 10 weeks over Skype. Our volunteer tutors rely on a four-level curriculum to provide personalized instruction. 3) Students take a diagnostic, a midterm, and a final English exam. Many students receive additional assistance in test-specific training. 4) Students continue until passing through our Advanced curriculum, at which point their English has reached a high operational level. Why It Matters:Teaching English provides a medium for pairs to learn about each other, the cultures they come from, their passions, families, dreams, and how current events have effected each other. Our lessons are as much about fostering cross-cultural understanding as they are teaching English. We hope to bring tutors and students closer together for lasting relationships beyond the virtual classroom. We hope to help students obtaingeneral English acquisition, as we recognize its importance in higher education and employment, and its relative inaccessibility. We also provide additional test-specific resources supporting students taking the TOEFL and IELTS exams. Pilot Programs: This winter, we launched three additional pilot programs: the Turkish Tutoring Program, matching Turkish tutors with Syrian refugees in Turkey; the Youth Exchange Program, matching Syrian and American high school classrooms for English conversation and resource support; and Women in Coding program, teaching Syrian women Python and JavaScript. So far we have served over 1,000 students, and hope to continue providing useful skills and languages through Skype to those who need it most.

Stage 4: Transition to Scale

Paper Airplanes is a recently registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 21 unpaid staff and hundreds of volunteers.
Yes -- currently, Paper Airplanes has over 330 students enrolled in its programs.
So far, our team has conducted surveys before and after each 10-week term of instruction. Our Fall 2016 English Program results displayed the following highlights:
  • Students
    • Over 80% satisfaction rate
    • Over 73% said they felt comfortable using English in a professional or university setting
    • Over half of our students want to continue participating
    • Over 600+ applicants in three days
  • Tutors
    • Over 98% said the Syrian crisis felt closer to home after tutoring a Syrian student
    • 9/10 said their leadership and mentoring capabilities were improved after tutoring
Our data collection will continue improving as our organization grows in capacity. However, initial results show high levels of satisfaction, understanding, and language acquisition.
Registered in United Statesin United States

Focus Areas:

Education, Youth, Digital Development and 1 MoreSEE ALL

Education, Youth, Digital Development and Public-Private PartnershipsSEE LESS

Implemented In:

Germany, Belgium, Algeria and 7 MoreSEE ALL

Germany, Belgium, Algeria, United States, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Turkey, Syria and SwedenSEE LESS

Lives Impacted to Date
Countries Implemented In
Funds Raised to Date

Mission and Vision

Our most recent numbers, from our 2016 fall English session, display high levels of satistfaction with our program:
  • Over 98% of volunteer tutors say the Syrian crisis felt closer to home after tutoring
  • Over 80% satisfaction among our students
  • 9/10 tutors developed mentorship and leadership skills
  • Our program has grown from 10 to over 325 students served per 10-week term
In the future, we hope to improve student English testing and expand the number of students we serve. We also hope to continue focusing on students in high risk areas like Syria and Iraq. Additionally, we hope to target female students, particularly with professional skills programs like the Women in Tech program. We hope to see our impact continue expanding, both for our tutors and students. Learning is a two-way street, and we want to reflect that process.

Competitive Advantage

We are a group of recent graduates, former refugees, and current students seeing our own humanity in the refugee youth seeking better opportunities. Recognizing Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Paper Airplanes aims to provide educational skills through Skype to those who need it most, focusing on the Middle East region. Facing more displaced populations than any year since WWII, education remains a key component of community sustainability and adaptability. A recent UNHCR study reported that less than 1% of refugee youth are attending higher education, displaying a clear need for educational access. This is particularly acute in the Middle East region, where tens of millions of displaced communities flee to neighboring countries and Europe. If unaddressed, lack of youth opportunities may have serious security and stability consequences for both the region and the globe. Further, rising xenophobia in the West towards refugee populations means non-governmental actors need to do a better job of connecting populations on a personal level. Paper Airplanes is the only project of its kind using Skype as a tool for personal connection and instruction. By matching refugees with personal tutors, Paper Airplanes focuses on providing individualized instruction and helping refugees seek opportunities in employment, education and community connectivity by providing the tools to get them there. Further, the digital nature of instruction allows us to reach anyone, anywhere. Last year, we were highlighted by Samantha Power for our innovation in addressing the Syrian educational crisis.We do not have all of the answers; but we have the tools to give them.

Planned Goals and Milestones

We continue to receive a high number of applicants from both the tutor and student side. However, we have reached our institutional capacity limit, and need to focus on organizational sustainability. Currently, our expansion is four-fold: 1) As a recently registered nonprofit organization in the United States, we hope to begin paying our volunteer staff for their work. Four of our current staff were former students in the program, and we particularly want to support their personal growth. We hope to use a mix of private donors, corporations, and middle-sized grants to sustain our operations. 2)To form private partnerships with major online educational companies like Blackboard and Coursera, to provide our users with an easier and more comprehensive learning platform. 3) To provide funds for our top students to take their English proficiency exams. 4) To thenexpand the number of students we serve to over 1,000 per 10-week term.
Our next steps are as follows: 1) Raise an initial $10,000 to fund student English exams and three part-time staff positions, two of whom are former refugees 2) Begin reaching out to press for increased coverage of our organization 3) Improve our educational platform by partnering with private corporations like Blackboard and Coursera 4) Raise an additional $20,000 through private funders and grants to pay full-time staff members and develop a test-prepration course for students 5) Expand our student base to over 1,000 per term.
Funding Goal20,000
Projected Cumulative Lives Impacted1,000


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