New technology launched this week is working to bridge the language divide that often occurs between refugees and aid workers. It uses a Facebook Messenger bot to connect to translators anywhere in the world at any time. The service would give the millions of families and individuals in refugee camps around the world a tool that is frequently lost upon the arrival in a new country: the ability to communicate.
A group of five friends started working on creating the bot, called Tarjimly, after hearing stories from friends they knew who had volunteered in the refugee camps in Greece that followed the same theme: if you spoke Arabic or Farsi, 90 percent of your time in the camp was spent translating.
Atif Javed, one of the co-founders of Tarjimly, says he remembers hearing a story about a refugee family in Greece who took their sick two-month-old to the medical facility at the camp. The parents misunderstood the instructions from the doctor, and believed it was safe for them to return home. The miscommunication ended up costing the parents the two-month-old's life.
"We can have thousands of volunteers flood into these camps to try to help, but if you can't have that basis of communication, how much of an impact can you have?" Javed told A Plus.
The technology works by connecting refugees to translators who volunteer to be part of the service. When an individual is in need of a translator, the person messages the Tarjimly Facebook page and selects the languages he or she needs to translate. Tarjimly then pings an available translator. By selecting for timezone and language proficiency, the bot has the ability to connect refugee to translator in about 30 seconds. Currently, Arabic is the only language in which the service is available, but Pashto, Farsi and Urdu, as well as other languages, will be added in the future.
The next step is getting the app into the hands of those who need it. Javed envisions that, the majority of the time, Tarjimly would be accessed by those helping in the camps instead of the refugees themselves. Aid workers and volunteers are more likely to have a smartphone on which they could pull up the app and then put the technology in the hands of the people who need it.
The bot is currently available in demo mode, but there are plans to begin testing it with a limited number of translators in the next few weeks. When the bot was released on Tuesday, Javed said the team hoped for 50 translators to sign up in the first week. In three days, they had over a thousand.
The increased need for such technology after recent executive orders that resulted in refugees being held at airports in the U.S. had not been lost on the team.
"It's very concerning when you have family and friends at the airport and they're being detained but they can't understand what the officers are saying," said Javed, who notes that all five of the co-founders are Muslim Americans who have friends and family directly affected by the executive order. "Now, we're at the point where it's hit home."
Javed believes that Tarjimly speaks to a larger trend in using technology to help fulfill basic needs. For example, he notes that Uber wasn't a huge breakthrough, but rather, used technology to make something people did all the time anyway, hailing a cab, easier.
But for Javed, there are issues that, while they may look less sexy to a Silicon Valley executive, are more important to fix, and he hopes that it will become more popular to focus on these day-to-day needs.
"There are so many places where there are so many things that we can actually solve," he said. "I don't care how many people can get a taxi service or a dating service when people can't get food or water. We need to be solving those kinds of issues more."
Cover image via Giannis Papanikos / Shutterstock, Inc.