You Can Help Refugees Right From Your Phone With Tarjimly's Translation App

by Hannah Golden

Making a difference in the world can seem like a daunting task: Sure, most people want to give their time and money to causes they care about, but what if you're short on both? Now, social-cause apps are solving the problem by making it easier to do your part without a lot of resources, and even from afar. So if helping people is your thing, here's how to help refugees from your phone.

You can start making a difference right away with just a few minutes at a time and a working wifi connection, thanks to Tarjimly, a free translation app for refugees, immigrants, and aid workers that connects them to volunteer translators in real time. Inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis, Tarjimly literally means "translate for me" in Arabic.

The free app works like any live-chat service, allowing users in need of translation help to zero in on their specific language and dialect and get connected with a translator in about the time it takes to make a piece of toast. Pretty cool, right? The United Nations estimates there are at least 68.5 million refugees across the world; from the Rohingya Muslim crisis to the migrant caravan, the co-founders cite countless examples of where the app can literally be saving lives. So if you speak a second language, care about helping people in need, and have a couple of spare minutes, you may just be the perfect fit for them.

The idea was the brainchild of co-founders Atif Javed and Aziz Alghunaim, both of whom are immigrants to the United States; Pakistani-Indian and Saudi Arabian, respectively. They became friends at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where they also informally volunteered as translators for immigrants in Boston. When they later went to volunteer in Syrian refugee camps in Greece and Turkey with friends, they discovered that language was a huge barrier for not just the arriving refugees, but for the people trying to help them. Syrians alone may speak any of seven languages, according to the CIA World Factbook.

"We said, 'Well, what if we could do this from anywhere? What if we could build an application where any bilingual could help and do the work that we do and make that easy?'" Javed tells me in an interview for Elite Daily on Feb. 7. The project got an unexpected push from the universe to launch quickly when President Donald Trump rolled out the first travel ban in January 2017, leaving many travelers were trapped in legal limbo due to the overnight change. The need for translation services in an emergency became apparent.

Two years later, on Feb. 7, 2019, the mobile app itself officially launched, and is available to download on the iTunes app store and Google Play Store. Now, users can communicate across various chat platforms, with or without a Facebook account.

So how does it actually work? Basically, both volunteers and beneficiaries go through a process to sign up to either volunteer to translate or request translations. Once they've been added to the database, when someone needs translation in real time, the app connects them with an available volunteer translator, taking anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, by seeing who's available and the best match. The app currently accommodates 80 of the most frequently spoken languages and their variants, including many dialects of Arabic, Spanish, and French. People with varying degrees of fluency are welcome — because the app simply pairs people with the best available translator, someone who isn't 100 percent fluent is still better than no translation at all. "Every degree of fluency is valuable," Javed says.

He adds that in the future, they'll be able to tailor the platform to beneficiaries' specific needs. "Moving forward, we'll have preferences that refugees and aid workers can select in their request of a translator (such as medical or legal expertise) so only the correct volunteers are pinged," he says.

While the app doesn't take the place of professional interpreters and specialist translators who assist in doing immigration documentation and the like, it can help people on the ground navigate their circumstances when there's no time to grab a translator, for example, when they need medical care or shelter.

"In really bad crises, it's the last resort," Alghunaim says. "When everything else fails, Tarjimly works."


Since it's completely free and volunteer-based, immigrants and refugees can tap into a constant, ever-present supply of translators at no cost. The platform also allows users to send over documents and images, so if there's a documentation question or required signature, users can be advised what it is they're signing for. It also works for voice notes and live phone calls, so even users who aren't bi-literate can participate.

It also helps other nonprofits and agencies be more effective and efficient in their work, both financially and otherwise. It may reduce the need for nonprofits and crisis agencies to shell out as much money for translators — money that could be used for other critical needs. "It's a big problem that no one talks about in the humanitarian space," Javed explains. And while pro-bono translators on the ground exist, there may not be enough capacity to handle the demands of thousands of workers and millions of refugees — or on such short notice.


Human translators are still very necessary, as computer-based tools might not be able to deal with dialects, accents, or important context. "We just did an interview with an aid worker, she's a trauma counselor in Greece, and she literally said, 'Google Translate does not work,'" Javed adds. "You can't talk to a survivor of sexual assault with Google Translate."

Asked how they prevent bad actors from using the platform for unintended purposes, Javed says the in-app review processes on both sides lets users rate each other and report any cases where users that may be using the app inappropriately. The organization is still figuring out how to manage this, but currently, Javed says, there's a warning and three-strike policy in place.

So far, the effort has been a huge success. In just over a year, Tarjimly has gained over 8,000 volunteer translators who have helped over 15,000 refugees and aid workers, according to the company.


But there's more work to be done. The app needs a continual and growing stream of volunteers to make the product successful. "We need thousands of people in the system [volunteering] so that we can give them someone in 60 seconds," Javed says. To achieve this, the company says it wants to mobilize 1 million of the world's 3 billion bilinguals for the cause.


And good news for those of us who have tight schedules: Volunteers can participate as much or as little as they please. Tarjimly is a form of "micro-volunteerism," where people can sign on to help in few-minute increments.

If translating isn't your jam, you can also help by donating (it is a nonprofit, after all) or sharing and telling your community about it. "Anyone can be part of the community, even if you're not bilingual," Javed says. You can also share it around and get your bilingual friends involved: A big part of making the app successful is just getting people to know about it.

With just a few minutes of your time, you can download the app and start building the community of real-time translators — and improve the lives of some refugees while you're at it. Bonne chance, buena suerte, and good luck!