Tackling language barriers for refugees

A Syrian girl peeks her head out through a hole in a tent, at a processing center for new refugees at the Bashabshe camp in the town of Ramtha on the Syria-Jordan border, Saturday, July 21, 2012. (Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill/For the New York Times)

Understanding the legal, healthcare, and education systems of a foreign country can be difficult. Throw in a language barrier and it can seem all but impossible. This is something Syrian refugees are becoming very familiar with as they migrate away from Arabic-speaking regions and begin to assimilate to life abroad. These language barriers not only make it harder for refugees to find work and get an education, but also leave them vulnerable to legal systems they may not fully understand.

Language acting as a social and cultural barrier is not a new phenomenon, but with the advent of smartphone technology, companies are beginning to innovate new solutions. One such company is Souktel. Souktel is a Palestinian-based start-up, and it has since partnered with the American Bar Association to distribute legal advice to Syrians now living in Turkey.

Souktel stands out in its use of advanced translation technology. Users send inquiries through the system, which are then translated to Turkish and sent to lawyers, who will send back a response that automatically gets translated back to Arabic.

The service is accessible through SMS, iMessage, and voice message. “Our core technology platform allows content to be delivered across multiple channels—SMS, mobile audio, mobile messenger—at the same time, so that smartphone users and basic mobile users have equitable access to life-changing information,” explains Jacub Korenblum, CEO and founder of Souktel.


In the near future, the company hopes to expand its services to refugees around the world. There is obviously huge demand for this type of service (over 10,000 Syrians have used Souktel), emphasizing the importance of language resources in assimilating to life in a new country.

As a start-up, Souktel is making huge strides to address an issue that is plaguing refugees globally. The success of the project speaks to the necessity of technology to ease global translation on a human level.  

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