From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps

September 13, 2018 | Tech Nonprofits

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps

This is the eighth piece in Fast Forward’s 2018 Accelerator Series featuring Tarjimly, which means “translate for me” in several languages.

It’s January 27, 2017 and Trump’s first Travel Ban has been issued, blocking U.S. entry for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and terminating refugee resettlement. In a moment where many felt fear, rage, and helplessness, Atif Javed and Aziz Alghunaim mobilized to get word out about Tarjimly, a Messenger app empowering the world’s 3 billion bilinguals to provide on-demand translation and interpretation for aid workers and the 25 million refugees worldwide.

Atif shared Tarjimly on his Facebook feed, and it went viral. “People were so excited by the idea that they could directly help refugees and immigrants, because usually there are two things you can do,” Atif said. “Either you go and fly to Arizona or Greece to volunteer for a short stint… or you donate money to a black box fundraiser, and you never feel where your dollar went. Money’s good, because it gets the right people out there, but we need more ways to leverage skills to actually help people.”

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Photo credit: Tarjimly

In the heat of the Muslim ban and with refugee crises exploding across the world, “the product broke from overuse,” Atif said. “Which is always a good thing when your prototype is bandwidth breaking.” Atif and Aziz stayed up for three nights straight to make sure the app, which ran on Facebook Messenger, kept running.

The Big Idea

Tarjimly connects the world’s 3 billion bilinguals to 25 million refugees through their on-demand translation app.

Moving to America on September 12, 2001

Atif’s connection to the plight of immigrants and refugees goes back to September 12, 2001, the date Atif was supposed to come to the US. This plan, of course, was delayed by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. When his family finally made it to the US, Atif remembers how challenging it was to assimilate. Given the climate in the US, Atif said, “My dad warned my mother about wearing hijab in public, us praying in school, and was explicit about not making our Muslim-ness known.”

The challenges of language barriers were heavy for his entire family, but they were especially prescient for his grandmother who didn’t speak any English. “Everything we did was to support her,” Atif said. “As a kid, my siblings and I interpreted for her constantly at visits to the doctor or really anywhere she needed to be heard.” He’ll never forget when his grandmother said to him, “At least people here judge you after they hear you, instead of just after they see you.”

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Atif Javed’s family | Photo credit: Tarjimly

Coding Beliefs into a Cause

While Atif was easing into life in the U.S., Aziz was falling in love with coding. “I believe one of the highest legacies people can leave behind is to have benefited other people. That belief is a function of my upbringing, my religion, my family, and my community,” Aziz said. “Coding was my way to bring my beliefs to reality.”

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Abdulaziz Alghunaim | Photo credit: Tarjimly

From College Roommates to Co-founders

In 2011, Atif and Aziz met at MIT’s Muslim Student Association as they prepared to start their freshman year. They immediately formed a friendship and decided to be dorm roommates, not yet predicting that a partnership with the potential to impact millions of lives was to transpire.

While at MIT, the Syrian refugee crisis was escalating by the day. Atif and Aziz cared deeply about refugees, but wanted to do more than just talk about the high level politics of the crisis. Atif recalls having friends who’d gone directly to refugee camps to help out. “Friends with crazy skills like PhDs and MBAs, would go and just interpret for people at the camps. Is the $1,000 flight worth it when we can interpret on the phone or over Facebook?”

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Aziz Alghunaim and Atif Javed at MIT | Photo credit: Tarjimly

They saw an opportunity for impact. Both Atif and Aziz understood the perils of being trapped by language, and had the technical expertise to build a real solution. “At MIT, incredible ideas come up daily,” Atif said. “What matters, then, is asking yourself what will you wake up passionate about in two years? What fire in your heart will keep burning? For us, refugees have our hearts.”

Values > Profit

After graduating MIT, the two landed jobs in Silicon Valley. Atif began his career working in product, first at Oracle, then at AJ+, while Aziz joined Palantir. Aziz’s role was with the Philanthropy Engineering team – bent on using code to solve challenging social problems. “As a software engineer, I couldn’t believe that I could write code that makes homeless people in the Bay Area better off. That’s when I realized I want to do engineering work that tackles society’s biggest problems,” Aziz said. After time, though, he realized, “Although they do really cool work, they didn’t have the capacity to work on these issues full time. They’re responsible to their shareholders to make a profit. And these problems don’t make you a profit.”

At the same time, the refugee crisis continued to worsen, and eventually Aziz and Atif traveled to Greece. Their goal was to understand what actually happens on the ground at refugee camps, and to validate their theories about the need for a service like Tarjimly.

A Product for People like Atif’s Grandmother

“You feel so extracted from the real scenario,” Atif recalls of the time they’d spent discussing the crisis. “But when we saw the camps, and met the people, it reminded us these are our own communities… these are people like my grandmother. It’s a draining, dropping, feeling to see our people in this situation. One Syrian woman we worked with said, ‘It’s like we’re walking blind here. Thank you for making this.’ I saw my own grandmother in that woman.”

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Aziz Alghunaim at a refugee camp in Samos, Greece | Photo credit: Tarjimly

“We knew the need was there,” Atif said, “but we didn’t expect this massive interest on the translator side. We were tapping into this cultural moment in the US with Trump’s rhetoric, the Rohingya genocide, and the Travel Ban. I remember the first time we had a session on the app. We were just like… this is it. This thing will work. It had just served multiple Afghan and Syrian women in a trauma center in Greece.”

“Six months after starting Tarjimly,” Aziz said, “we reached a point where we de-risked the concept from being some crazy idea. We dedicated all of our free time to building, shipping, and doing tons of work on validation with real users.” That’s when they had the conversation about quitting their jobs and pursuing this full time. Aziz said, “For me, I just could not say no to growing an organization that actually delivers insane impact… I would never forgive myself if I hadn’t pursued it.” In January 2018, they quit their jobs, started Y Combinator, and went all-in on building Tarjimly.

The Translation App for Refugees

A year into building the product, they considered it officially launched. It’s simple to sign up: send Tarjimly a message on Facebook, volunteers select their languages and fluency, and receive alerts whenever a refugee or aid worker needs a translation that the volunteer is best suited for. Conversations range from quick chat exchanges to video calls. To date, Tarjimly has connected 5,000 translators with over 9,000 refugees and aid workers across 18 different languages.

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Members of the Tarjimly team in Samos, Greece | Photo credit: Tarjimly

The Tarjimly team has solid evidence that people have the skills and willingness to volunteer, but don’t have the means. Aziz said, “Our job is to do the heavy lifting of plugging in to all of the major players in the humanitarian space, and to make sure that our pool of skilled volunteers are being utilized in the most efficient way to solve critical problems.”

Take Haley, a counselor at a Women’s Trauma Center in Greece. Using Tarjimly, Haley connected with Sara, a volunteer translator who spoke Arabic, and enabled Haley to communicate with a Syrian refugee who was suffering from a miscarriage. “She was talking about suicide, and was feeling really depressed about life in the camp. This translator actually talked the woman through it and helped her make sense of the situation. Our translator allowed Haley, one of the only counselors on the island, to meaningfully connect and counsel the woman,” Atif said. Stateside, a woman named Ayse used Tarjimly to coordinate between an NGO and the Turkish Coast Guard during a refugee rescue operation in the Mediterranean, all while sitting in her living room in Los Angeles.

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
Messages from Turkish Rescue Misson from Tarjimly app | Photo credit: Tarjimly

Eliminating Language Barriers through Micro-Volunteering

The future is bright for Tarjimly, with plans to launch iOS and Android apps in November as a major step up from their Facebook Messenger app. In the next year, Aziz and Atif plan to serve 100,000 refugees, by signing up 1,000,000 volunteer translators. Aziz and Atif imagine a future where Tarjimly is more than solely translation – it will be a platform that supports any humanitarian crisis by deploying the service of remote volunteers willing to step in and help.

“Ultimately, our mission is to improve the lives of refugees with on-demand volunteers,” Atif said. “If we can make a big dent in that, we can see a world where billions of people are volunteering to help millions of people in need every day, and that’s a Wikipedia-type of world where everyone’s contributing to making the world a better place.” As crises like the travel ban, the Rohingya crisis, and the separation of families at the border continue to play out, Tarjimly is dedicated to ensuring that even if refugees are trapped by borders, they will no longer be trapped by language.

From Silicon Valley to Refugee Camps
The Tarjimly team | Photo credit: Tarjimly

If you are bilingual, send Tarjimly a message to translate for an aid worker or refugee in need. 

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