24-hour translation technology saves refugees’ lives

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A refugee of Syrian nationality struggles to explain to a European volunteer doctor a critical situation of her child who has a fever. Thousands living in refugee camps around the world have been in similar situations struggling to communicate with service providers, according to volunteers in the camps.

Language has been one of the main barriers many refugees face. This led a team of entrepreneurs to found a non-profit tech startup called Tarjimly that offers a 24-hour translation service for those who need it the most. The service that launched last year on Facebook’s Messenger platform is now looking to move to its own app in the coming months.

“It’s a real struggle for them everyday and can be frustrating,” says Alghunaim, a young Saudi studying in the United States, who visited several refugee camps in Greece. “Some of the situations we’ve encountered had the potential to escalate to a life or death experience.”

“These refugee camps have multiple nationalities. It’s common to see a refugee camp with 30 nationalities who speak a dozen languages. No organization has the resources to provide all translators on the ground.”

Alghunaim and head of product Atif Javed left their engineering jobs to start the new company that was recently accepted in Y Coordinator, a top accelerator program in the United States that supported companies like Airbnb and Dropbox.

Tarjimly currently has more than 3,000 translators and supports 16 different languages on the platform, including Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Pashtu, Kurdi, French, German, Spanish, Somali, Italian.

The average connection time is 90 seconds. So far, the company has completed more than 2,000 translation sessions helping aid workers and refugees.

“At the refugee camps, we talked to a dozen organizations, hundreds of aid workers, refugees on the ground trying to understand what their needs are and what context Tarjimly is being used in,” Alghunaim told Saudi Gazette. “Our focus is to bring the platform where bilinguals are able to provide their skills to help refugees.

Asked about the challenges, he said understanding how to build the correct partnership models with donors, foundations, and other interested organizations. “The technology is not the hard part. The challenge is around creating these partnerships that will allow you to be sustainable and help the millions of refugees,” he said.

Today, the refugee aid workers using Tarjimly are in Greece, France, UK, US, Turkey and Germany as well as in Bangladesh and Burma because of the Rohingya crisis.

The user translators are distributed all over the world with the highest portion in the Middle East, namely 15 percent from Saudi Arabia, 15 percent in Egypt, and 5 percent in the UAE. Around 20 percent come from the United Kingdom, while 20 percent from the United States, and the rest from a host of different countries.

Tarjimly developers built the service to be completely anonymous protecting the refugee’s identity as well as the translator’s. Even phone numbers in calls are not disclosed. Both parties don’t have the real phone numbers.


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