by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
I met Mike Clarke when he was on my son John’s Little League Baseball team, the Montclair Bulldogs.
I’ve always been inspired by Mike’s growth and endeavors over the years, and after catching up with him recently, I was even more impressed to learn about the work he’s been doing to support refugees and migrant communities.
After living in New York City and working for tech startups, Mike became curious about using technology in a more impactful, humanitarian way. So, in May 2016, he moved to Lebanon to explore this curiosity with no definite plans beyond a strong conviction to help.
In Lebanon, Mike quickly met Syrian refugees. There are 5.6 million Syrian refugees displaced globally, and with a 25 percent refugee population, Lebanon has the highest rate of refugees per capita in the world.
Like many people, I have preconceptions about what life as a refugee, and living in a refugee camp, is like, so it was eye-opening, devastating, and inspiring all at once for me to hear from Mike firsthand about his life and work with Syrian refugees.
Mike explained that most of the Syrian refugees he lives and works with do have at least some access to smartphones. But after living in Lebanon for several months, he also learned that there is a robust opportunity to leverage technology on a large scale to help displaced people acclimate to new living situations.
Mike thinks smartphones can be used to address some of the biggest issues among refugees and migrant communities: learning, speaking, and reading a new language. The new language is usually, but not always, English.
After organizing and funding hackathons in Lebanon and Jordan, Mike was able to unite people who care about technology and refugees. Together with local NGOs and agencies, they began prototyping solutions to language barriers using smartphones.
In 2018, with the help of a grant from the MIT Media Lab—which funds and supports the Refugee Learning Accelerator, a supportive professional community for humanitarian refugee-oriented tech startups—Mike and his team launched an app called Kindi. Other than Mike, the Kindi team is made up of Ahmad Ghizzawi, a Lebanese software developer and the head of engineering, and Leen Naffaa, a Palestinian graphic designer and head of user interface design. The team met at one of Mike’s first hackathons and have collaborated together ever since.
Kindi helps students learn new languages by connecting them to reading buddies in real time. (You can watch the intro video here!) Once students have connected with a reading buddy, they can choose a story, read or be read to, and follow along with the text in real time. In this way, they learn reading, speaking, and listening. Mike’s team is also working on a feature where users can write and submit their own stories!
This past summer, Mike kicked off pilot-testing for Kindi with Syrian refugees in Lebanon in the Bekaa Valley, which neighbors Syria. Mike has visited many refugee camps throughout Kindi’s evolution. The refugees are scattered haphazardly throughout the district. According to Mike, “In Lebanon, there are no formal UN refugee camps for Syrians. Instead you’ll find refugees living in a variety of shelters, from apartments to unfinished buildings, and in tent spreads all over the place.” Tent spreads are informal tented settlements where refugees can rent land and pitch a tent for their families. Mike says that these are widely considered refugee camps even though the UN does not designate them as such.
Pilot-testing Kindi took him to the Malala School, an all-girl middle school operated by the Kayany Foundation, the only government-accredited education provider in Lebanon. There he worked with the students in a 2018 summer program.
During a recent visit to New York City, Mike came to the Scholastic offices to talk with us about Kindi and his firsthand experience working with Syrian refugees. Needless to say, we were so inspired to hear about his work.
We spoke with Mike for hours. Mike is a courageous and intelligent visionary, and Kindi is a fascinating project. It has a bright future connecting language learners with books to support their learning and inspire a love of reading.
Below are some excerpts from our conversation.
Why do you think it’s important to support refugees and/or migrant kids in learning a second language?
Mike: Put yourself in the shoes of these kids. Some of these students—who may have been in the top of their class in Syria—enter a classroom where they don’t understand a language through no fault of their own, and now the trajectory of their life has changed.
Throughout that process, they’re alone. There are no parents to help, they can’t afford tutoring, and teachers barely have enough class time.
With Kindi, these kids know they aren’t alone—that there’s a whole wide world out there and people who care and who can offer ten minutes of their day to help them learn a language. And that’s what excites me about Kindi: connecting humans with each other.
Why is reading the focus of Kindi?
Mike: Books give templates and inspiration for young people to become their own storytellers. When they read stories, they get a feel for framework and it allows them to start writing their own stories, which is one of the best outcomes we’ve seen at Kindi.
The reason we liked using books and stories as a medium is because humans have been sharing stories with each other since day one, so it’s really easy to connect with. There’s a benefit of shared reading experiences as well, which really helps people with literacy and confidence. Basically, we are building on what’s already been proven as a methodology: reading and storytelling.
It had been years since I’d seen Mike Clarke as a middle school center fielder for the Montclair Bulldogs. But Mike’s story—and his determination to use fun and innovative tech to help refugees learn a new language to make a real and concrete difference in their ability to learn, study, grow, and reclaim some normal life—is truly inspiring and motivating.
Mike’s work (and he is very modest about it) reminds us that regular people really can change the world. Reconnecting with Mike allowed me and my Scholastic colleagues who met with him to get a clearer, humanized understanding of displaced people like Syrian refugees. Their lives changed drastically upon leaving Syria. But by working together with people like Mike and the Kindi team—and by using the power of smartphones and books—they can work toward a brighter future.
This notion of humanizing people who happen to be refugees—through no fault of their own—and portraying them as real-life men, women, and children with whom we can identify is at the heart of Alan Gratz’s powerful, bestselling book Refugee.
“Nothing short of brilliant.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Through action-packed short chapters, readers follow the stories of three different young refugees from around the world: Mahmoud in present-day Syria, Isabel during the Cuban rafter crisis, and Josef during the Holocaust.
David Vozar read Refugee in one sitting, and I asked him to weigh in on his experience of this groundbreaking book:
“When I first started reading chapter books as I child, I would always flip ahead to see how many pages there were until the next chapter. There was comfort in knowing that there would be a break in the book for me.
“Even as an adult, longer chapters create a lot of anxiety for me. I still stop at the table of contents to see how many chapters make up the novel before sitting down to read it.
“I knew I wanted to read Alan Gratz’s Refugee, but I was also excited to see that the book is constructed with three action-packed stories intertwined and told in short digestible chapters. Just as Isabel’s chapter would end, I would find myself thrust into the next chapter of Josef and then Mahmoud as they and their families risked their lives to escape from danger and possible death.
“The format of the writing makes these stories accessible, but it is the human bonds that are constructed among the three families and the reader that had the greatest effect on me. Sometimes there is so much going on at once that it is hard to take notice and understand what others are truly going through. Alan Gratz’s talent for writing has brought this understanding to me in short digestible pieces.”
Reading Refugee was thought-provoking and inspiring for everyone at Scholastic Book Clubs and for the people who work on this blog: the Book Boys “unpack” their reading experience; we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes in Cooked Up from a Book; Alan Gratz himself shares why he believes it’s important to educate students about refugees in Behind the Scenes; and in Book Talks, sixth grade teacher Scott Hebenstreit provides insight into how he uses Refugee in his classroom.
I hope you and your students are as inspired by reading Refugee and learning about Mike Clarke and his work with Kindi as we are. This reminds us all about the power of books to change lives.
All photos in the post courtesy of Mike Clarke.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs