When a boat of 12 refugees capsized in early 2018 on their way to Greece, a Greek team of non-profit organizations saw the accident – but they were not allowed to bring their boat into Turkish waters to do the rescue. They also could not speak Turkish, so when they called the Turkish Coast Guard they could not communicate. Then someone got an app on their phone and a few minutes later they were connected to a volunteer who works in Los Angeles as a designer and who happens to speak Turkish.
"She came home from work to her apartment and received a ping message:" Hey, are you ten minutes free to help? "She suddenly became part of the rescue," Aziz Alghunaim, one of the co-founders of Tarjimly., The non-profit startup that first launched a Messenger bot two years ago to quickly connect volunteer translators with refugees (The name Tarjimly means "translate for me" in Arabic.) The volunteer called the Coast Guard and half an hour later the lives of the refugees were saved.The service has now been used more than 10,000 times and now the non-profit organization makes it more accessible by launching new iPhone and Android apps that are hoped to these more people will reach.
The app started as a side project for Alghunaim and co-founder Atif Javed when they both just graduated from MIT and moved to Silicon Valley to do more typical technical jobs. Javed's own grandmother was a refugee and when his family moved to the United States he translated for her; Both founders began to think about the need for translation in the current refugee crisis as students, and were increasingly disappointed by standard technology. "I wanted to be able to work on something that would not only be technology because of technology or technology that simply helps rich people in the world, but really helps people who really need it," says Alghunaim.
"It all started when we said: let's test this idea as soon as possible," he says. "And the idea was simple: can we use the skills of people – who are on the internet and have multiple languages - to completely eradicate the idea that a refugee can not get help because they do not speak the language of the aid workers?"
[Image: Tarjimly]When Trump announced the first travel ban in January 2017 – blocking the resettlement of refugees and civilians from seven countries with a majority of Muslims and needed immediate translation at airports – the founders decided to share the app early. The answer was immediate; within a few days about 1500 people had volunteered. Javed and Alghunaim have decided to quit their job and launch the non-profit organization.
The developers started with Facebook Messenger after they realized that refugees already used it on a large scale. They could test the viability of the concept: would volunteers give it a try or do they want to come back? Would enough people sign up? Would the humanitarian sector trust the service and would it use it? They quickly saw that it worked. The platform now has more than 8000 translators who speak more than 90 languages, and can be used in almost any situation where someone trying to help can not communicate with someone in need – such as in a medical appointment where a doctor can not talk to a refugee. – and where a traditional translation service is not available.
The new mobile app is designed to continue. For example, voice calls were difficult to include in the Messenger app. While refugees already used Messenger, it is not an ideal tool for humanitarian workers who may work for large organizations with specific security requirements for technology, or who may not want workers to use Facebook. The standalone app may contain new features, such as an educational tool that helps someone improve their translation skills. With the new app, the non-profit organization hopes to attract a million volunteers.
The app can also help in situations outside the refugee camps and borders. For example, non-profit organizations that work with non-English speaking housekeepers in the United States are interested in using the service. A resettlement agency recently used it to help a Swahili-speaking family to sign up for food aid in the United States. Another agency used it to help a Spanish speaking mother who had just given birth in a hospital where no Spanish-speaking translators were present. "We started this because of the refugee crisis because of that pertinent need", Javed says. "But really, we now see the impact that has on the entire humanitarian space."