For many, the image of a paper airplane conjures up visions of a childhood classroom. Students in war-torn Syria, however, are more accustomed to real planes – bombing their cities and villages, driving them into exile and away from school. That’s the problem Bailey Ulbricht ’15 hoped to address when she founded Paper Airplanes, which allows American college students to tutor college-aged Syrians through Skype.
“The paper airplane is a common symbol of a classroom. It is also one of the big symbols violence in Syria—airplanes, bombing citizens. To us, it represents education and a peaceful way to interact with Syrians,” said Ulbricht in an interview.
While teaching English on the Turkish-Syrian border the summer after her sophomore year, Ulbricht met many Syrian refugees around her age who desperately wanted to improve their English. Soon, there were more students wanting lessons than Ulbricht could handle herself, so she decided to reach out to her friends.
One of them, Harrison Reeder ’15, has become an integral part of the program. Over the summer, the two of them talked a lot about forms of activism, and how they could help the Syrian students. Now, he is a tutor and an administrator.
Ulbricht, Reeder and Ulbricht’s friend who attends Swarthmore College oversee 30 tutors, from Carleton College, St. Olaf, University of Minnesota graduate school, and Swarthmore College. They act as point-people to answer questions and hold weekly check-ins with the tutors.
Maddie Ulanow, a senior political science major says her student, Alaa, is, “besides being a friend on the opposite side of the world, an incredibly inspiring person who encourages me to do be a better student, teacher, and person generally.”
While it is difficult to communicate at times, and Ulanow tries to refrain from relying too much on her Arabic, “to give Alaa the chance to work on his listening skills,” sometimes it is necessary to use Arabic. Ulbricht says she tries to pair students who have more difficulty speaking English with tutors who speak Arabic, but speaking Arabic is not a requirement for the program.
Sophomore Elizabeth O’Connor was first drawn to Paper Airplanes because of her interest in Arabic and the Middle. “The possibility of helping one person who has been affected by all the turmoil in the region drew me to it, because it’s helping on person get ouf of a terrible situation and give them an opportunity to receive higher education, something I received really easily,” she said in an interview.
Although she no longer works with her first student, a 17 year-old boy who fled from Syria to Egypt, and then moved to Turkey after almost being forced back into Syria, she looks forward to working with more teenagers.
“I think he [her student] was having a very hard time adjusting to the new life in Turkey. He had been active in the Syrian Civil War before he left, taking videos for the rebels. We didn’t have many sessions because he had poor Internet connection and not a lot of time to be tutored,” she said.
Graham Earley ’17 became involved with the program after seeing Reeder’s post about it in the Class of 2017 Facebook group. He wanted to get a different perspective on the Syria crisis, and help international students achieve their goal of studying in the U.S.
Ulbricht and Reeder provide tutors with materials, but also encourage them to converse casually about pop culture and the news. Earley recalled a time when he and his student, Mohamad, were sharing their favorite songs in English so that Mohamad could practice interpreting the lyrics.
Mohamad said his favorite song was “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. “I agreed that it was a good song,” said Earley, “but after he sent me the link, it turned out his favorite rendition of it was the Alvin and the Chipmunks version. He was pretty darn good at interpreting those lyrics.”
Looking to the future of the club, Ulbricht recently connected with a National Syrian Advocacy organization that is interested in teaming up with Paper Airplanes. “It probably won’t just stay at Carleton, but hopefully it will have strong roots here,” said Ulbricht.
Some of the Syrian students are preparing for the TOEFL exam. Once they do that, an NGO in the Twin Cities called College Possible, which Ulbricht and Reeder have been in contact with, is interested in helping them put together their applications.
“We are not just trying to offer assistance in a language, we are also having some amount of cultural exchange and connection, which is way better,” said Reeder.