Paper Airplanes en route to education

Risa Mori

Since the outbreak of civil war between the Syrian government and opposing rebel groups in 2011, more than 5.4 million Syrians have fled their homes. Now, in the seventh year of war, only 1 percent of refugees are enrolled in university, according to The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Lynbrook’s chapter of Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit that uses Skype to connect English-speaking students with Syrian refugee students, provides one-on-one English tutoring sessions. Most of these refugee students aim to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam so they can pursue higher education, and ultimately, secure a job in America.

The Paper Airplanes organization, founded in 2014, hosts English, Turkish and Women in Tech programs that are run by adults; however, high schools with at least seven tutors can also be involved through its Youth Exchange Program, which was opened last year. Tutors and tutees, who are generally around the age of 16 to 17, are then matched based on their language abilities, age, gender and personal interests.

“In the culture of many of the students we work with, female students must be matched with female tutors, so I matched pairs primarily based on gender,” said Youth Exchange Program director Chase Small. “But in the future, we want to collect more information on tutors and students, such as academic interests, to improve matches.”

While tutors are provided with curriculum materials complete with lesson activities and homework, they are encouraged to adapt their material to the student’s goals, from studying for the TOEFL or SAT to improving their English speaking skills. Tutor-student pairs have the freedom to set up the time of their sessions, but are required to meet up online for at least one hour per week. Additionally, the participating tutors at the Lynbrook chapter have meetings once a week to discuss and reflect on teaching strategies.

Junior Meghana Kumar was struck by the reality of the Syrian refugee crisis after a trip to Greece during her freshman year. Looking for a way to get involved, she heard about the Paper Airplanes program through her co-coordinator, junior Patricia Wei. Kumar and Wei exchanged several phone calls with the organization throughout the summer of 2017 to set up a Lynbrook chapter of the Youth Exchange Program. As student coordinators for Lynbrook student tutors, they began recruiting Lynbrook students in September of that same year, successfully gathering a group of around 25 student tutors of all grade levels. Currently, the Lynbrook chapter works with Syrian refugees who live in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and is one of the seven schools across the U.S. involved in the Youth Exchange Program.

“Beyond helping those affected by conflict in the Middle East, we want to give the opportunity for students to connect with a new friend,” said Kumar “I think we all come in with some preconceptions about refugees, but the one thing we all learned is that we have far more in common than we do differences.”

In modern times, familiarization of English is a doorway to higher education and future employment, which is critical for Syrian refugees who are looking to rebuild their lives following the calamity of the war. Besides learning the English language, the program also provides the opportunity for two young adults to learn about each other’s lives, their respective cultures and how global events have impacted them, promoting compassion between students that extends beyond their digital screens.

After going through a semester of lessons, Lynbrook tutors have become more acquainted with the tutoring process; however, they faced numerous challenges in the beginning. Tutors had difficulties communicating while teaching an entirely new language. Unlike the language classes at Lynbrook, tutors and tutees often do not speak the same language. Their varying time zones also made it difficult to schedule sessions. Using an Internet calendar tool has helped tutors and their tutees to convert times and coordinate meetings, but communication still remains a large issue.

“We had some difficulties with communication and internet problems,” said Kumar. “A few of the students were forced to quit and sometimes students can’t make it for a variety of reasons. I think it’s just one of the challenges that come along with working with students who have a lot going on and whose lives can sometimes be a bit unpredictable.”

With practice in teaching and sorting out initial complications, the tutoring process becomes easier to carry out and more enjoyable as tutors and tutees become comfortable with each other. Many tutors found that, through teaching their students, they have learned valuable lessons as well.

“Something I learned is that we shouldn’t necessarily pity our students, because they’re definitely capable and are quick learners,” said freshman Zahra Aziz. ”They’ve already been through so much at such young ages because of the war, and here, I don’t think any of us have experience with something like that. Seeing what they can do has inspired me to stay motivated too.”

Students are also able to kindle friendships through the experience.

“I learned that we actually have more similarities than differences,” said senior Kristin Lee. “[My tutee] listens to a lot of music I listen to; she loves Ed Sheeran, so I also introduced her to Sara Bareilles. We talked about a lot of things that normal teenager girls talk about. They tell you to be prepared for a lot of cultural differences, but I think if you go through the process you’ll see that we’re quite similar.”

As of now, Lynbrook’s Paper Airplanes chapter functions simply as a group of passionate students on campus. The current ongoing program ends in May, but Kumar and Wei hope to continue their program as an official club at Lynbrook to gain more student involvement and potentially attract more tutors to join their cause. As for the Paper Airplanes organization, the youth program director is actively improving the communication issue that many tutor-tutee pairs face, and is working on expanding their new youth curriculum.

“I am traveling this year to connect with organizations in Greece, Turkey, and Jordan who work with refugee youth in person,” said Small. “By finding students through them, we will be able to contact the organizations when there are communication issues with a student. We are also in the process of rolling out a collaborative toolkit for high schools to share ideas on tutoring techniques and advocacy projects. The ultimate goal of the program is to create a network of high schools globally in touch with and enthusiastic about the refugee crisis.”

While many students found difficulties in the beginning when adjusting to the process, the tutoring experience has blossomed friendships between student tutors and Syrian refugees. Despite being separated by a distance of over 7,000 miles, students are able to overcome language barriers and cultural differences to bond over the common interest of education.