Paper Airplanes Languages and Skills

  • Date published:
    27 January 2022
© Paper Airplanes

Programme summary

Programme Title Paper Airplanes Languages and Skills
Implementing Organization Paper Airplanes, Inc. (United States)
Location US
Language of Instruction Host country’s language or L2; foreign Language; combination of L1 (mother tongue) and L2
Date of Inception 2014
Programme Partners Karam Foundation, MIT Refugee Action Hub, Na’amal, Workaround, NeTakallam (We.Speak), JUSOOR, Collateral Repair Project, School of Leadership Afghanistan, Save Youth Future Society, Reclaim Childhood, Talent Beyond Boundaries, Syrian Youth Empowerment, Nexford University, Duolingo, International TEFL Academy, Monash University, Jesuit Refugee Service, Gaza Sky Geeks, University of Georgia, Amideast, FIU Online
Funding US Government grant; private sector; national NGO; international NGO; private donors
Annual Programme Costs USD 100,000
Annual Programme Cost per Learner Approx. USD 500
Annual cost of the digital tool USD 15,000
Digital tool(s) used Video-conferencing, cloud-sharing platforms, LMS based in Kiron Campus (2021), websites, videos
Target population Refugees and internally displaced people in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Egypt, Iraq, Gaza Strip, United States and Afghanistan
Learner age 13+
Learner to instructor ratio English programme: individual tutoring 1:1; conversation classes 1:2–2:5
Target skill(s) English literacy and digital skills
Impact 2,411 students. 85.6 per cent of students used the programme for at least one semester; 89 per cent noticed a significant improvement in their skills.
Programme website https://www.paper-airplanes.org/


Worldwide, 71 million people have fled their homes due to violence and persecution (UNHCR, 2019). More than 21 million of them are located in the Middle East and North Africa, and over half are Syrian (UNHCR, 2019). Nearly 20 per cent of Syrians are aged between 15 and 24, and more than 200,000 university-qualified Syrian students are not enrolled because of ongoing conflict (IIE, 2021). As a result, an entire generation of youth faces barriers to education and employment. These include a lack of language fluency, technical skills or credentials, and financial constraints. Existing language and skills training programmes are rarely free of charge, and often remain inaccessible to those in highly insecure areas or with family and work commitments. Meanwhile, programmes are unable to provide adequate services due to the vast number of people in need.

Paper Airplanes is a non-profit organization incorporated in the United States that facilitates language learning for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) through personal tutoring in 12 to 18-week sessions. Founded in 2014, Paper Airplanes provides online English language instruction to university-aged Syrian refugees in Turkey who were displaced due to the Syrian civil war. Paper Airplanes has grown to offer four different programmes: a Turkish programme, a Youth Exchange programme for young people aged 13–18, a Women in Tech programme, and a Student Advising programme.

According to UNHCR, only 1 per cent of young refugees attend university compared with 34 per cent globally. Paper Airplanes supports young refugees not only by giving them the opportunity to learn the languages and skills they need to make the transition to higher education, but also by equipping them with the confidence and opportunities they need to find meaningful employment.

Overview of the programme

Figure 1: Programme overview. Source: Paper Airplanes

The programme prides itself on its sensitivity towards its student population, using virtual platforms to provide educational experiences to students who are unable to take advantage of in-person learning opportunities. Trained volunteer tutors are paired up with learners (see Step 1 in Fig. 1, above), and together they progress through a curriculum that corresponds to the learners’ English language proficiency. The volunteer tutors are provided with both educational resources and counselling on trauma-informed behaviour so that they can work effectively with their students (see Step 2). Paper Airplane’s programmes are run entirely remotely using video-conference technology, allowing them to reach refugee and IDP students in locations that traditional teachers might normally struggle to reach. The virtual modality also allows Paper Airplanes to keep costs low. By recruiting volunteer tutors, the programmes provide a cost-effective, scalable education solution that is free of charge to users.

Paper Airplanes has a professionally written curriculum designed to reach students with levels of English language proficiency ranging from beginners to advanced. Learners meet with their tutors for two hours a week (see Step 3). They also have the opportunity to participate in group conversation classes to improve their speaking and listening skills. Learners receive help writing personal statements and curriculum vitae if needed for employment or further learning opportunities (see Step 4). Paper Airplanes also supports learners who want to take accredited English proficiency exams by offering a test fund for which learners can apply (see Step 5).

Although university partners offer programmes for displaced people, systemic barriers continue to hinder educational participation and achievement amongst refugees compared to non-displaced persons. Paper Airplanes is uniquely positioned to redress this injustice: its model allows it to help learners access learning, career connections and communities in circumstances where such opportunities are scarce.

The Paper Airplanes programme used virtual instruction to deliver its educational services even before the COVID-19 pandemic made this a necessity. Since its inception in 2014, the programme has provided free instruction to individuals via video chat in a one-to-one format. In 2020, while the rest of the educational world was forced to learn how to teach virtually, Paper Airplanes had already been using this method successfully for several years, providing refugees with educational services that fill in the gaps created by socio-political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Paper Airplanes’ planning and operations are led by an executive team consisting primarily of the Executive Director and the Managing Director. It has a volunteer Board of Directors, which oversees general strategy, annual planning and fundraising activities.

Figure 2: A one-minute video explaining the programme’s mission.[1]

Programme objectives

According to its website, the Paper Airplanes programme’s mission is ‘to enable learning continuity’ (Paper Airplanes, 2021). By connecting volunteer tutors with refugee learners, the programme

‘helps these learners complete their education, while also empowering them with skills for gainful employment’.

Through its work, the Paper Airplanes programme seeks to:

  • improve learners‘ English language and literacy through one-to-one and group lessons;
  • support learners‘ acquisition of digital literacy skills;
  • provide pathways to employment and higher education.


In 2019, Paper Airlines enrolled just over 1,000 learners in its programmes, of whom approximately 550 were returning learners and the remainder were new learners. About 47 per cent of learners were women, while 53 per cent were men (Paper Airplanes, 2020). Location data provided by learners revealed that some 30 per cent were based in Syria, while 25 per cent were located in Jordan, 23 per cent in Turkey, and the remainder distributed around the Middle East and North Africa.

Learner enrolment

Learners can enrol in the programme in two different ways: either individually or on the recommendation of a partner organization. Learners referred by partners are guaranteed a place in the English programme. Individuals who apply through the Paper Airplanes Facebook page are ‘evaluated by English programme staff who look at a variety of criteria including gender, location, nationality, migration status and motivation for learning English to determine who will be accepted’.

Figure 3, below, shows an example of an advertisement for Paper Airplanes from the programme’s Facebook page.


Every ending is a new beginning.

As we approach the end of 2020, we're excited to announce the beginning of our English program for 2021! Our program matches learners with tutors and provides personalised training to ensure success.

Interested? Application for learners is open on December 4th and 5th, so mark your calendar and be sure to let anyone who is interested know about it, too!

Application link: https://www.facebook.com/PaperAirplanes/

Figure 3: Paper Airplanes Facebook advertisement. Source: Paper Airplanes

Since technology is used to deliver services, learners take part in a remote training module using the platforms and applications that Paper Airplanes uses to carry out its activities (see section on technology, below). Learners provide or procure a Gmail[2] address in order to access the programme curriculum materials that use Google Workspace.[3]

Learner assessment

The programme’s enrolment process includes a pre-diagnostic assessment of language proficiency. Individuals may self-assess and request an easy or difficult placement test, which will determine their English proficiency in line with the levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 or C2) defined in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) [4] .

Following the placement test, students can be put forward to attend further Paper Airplane programmes. For example, women who achieve a B2 level of English proficiency can enrol in the Women in Tech programme and learn IT skills such as coding, web design and business analytics. Students who show high proficiency in the English language programme can receive support from the Student Advising programme to help them identify and apply for universities or jobs.

Paper Airplanes sends surveys to students at the beginning and end of each programme in order to obtain information on their learning progress and to assess the impact of the programme. Paper Airplanes’ annual survey furthermore collects feedback and testimonials from past learners regarding their progress in achieving their educational and employment goals.

Teaching and learning approaches

The Paper Airplanes English language programme curriculum is designed to promote intercultural dialogue, foster understanding, build bridges and break down barriers. By focusing on goal-setting and contemporary, student-centred topics, the curriculum incorporates language skills in a contextualized environment. 

Learners and tutors begin by identifying goals. These are closely monitored and discussed on an ongoing basis. Learners conclude each semester by taking a final exam. Throughout the semester, they are encouraged to express their feelings openly and engage in thoughtful discussion as they explore topics such as racial disparity, environmental laws, and non-fiction storytelling. All learners and tutors participate in dynamic online interactive activities during which they present personal perspectives and develop a greater understanding of other peoples and cultures at a level that suits them. For example, learners at beginner level learn how to make medical appointments. Through this exercise, they use the interrogative mode, learn key vocabulary, and speak with cultural sensitivity about identifying illness, defining self-care and identifying important services. The tutor engages thoughtfully with the students and guides them through these exchanges.

Tutors and learners communicate as equals who use modern media to learn from one another and enhance their soft skills. Learning progress is monitored at each level through weekly activities, midterm assessments and final exams.

Learners and tutors contribute regularly to the curriculum through one-to-one communication with the curriculum director. This allows the curriculum to be adapted to the cultural, demographic and language needs of the learners it serves.

To ensure a high level of engagement, personalization according to each learner’s needs and flexibility in scheduling, the programme maintains a learner-facilitator ratio of 1:1 for the individual tutoring component of the English programme and 1:2–2:5 for the group conversation classes.

Recruitment and training of facilitators

The programme team comprises 30 paid and volunteer staff, as well as a large number of volunteers and interns. All facilitators/tutors in the Paper Airplanes programme are volunteers and are located all around the world. Volunteers must be advanced or fluent English speakers, 18 years or older, and demonstrate a commitment to serving conflict-affected communities. While there is high demand for participation from learners, volunteer tutors must be recruited by staff who conduct outreach that targets universities and other groups that can refer individuals looking for volunteer opportunities.

The programme requires its volunteer tutors to attend a training module that is facilitated through Google Classroom and takes 6–8 hours to complete. The training module is asynchronous, which means that volunteers can complete it at their own pace. It is moderated by tutor coordinators. The programme also provides the volunteers with professional development webinars and social activities that promote a sense of community. Topics covered include pedagogical techniques, trauma-sensitive approaches, socio-cultural issues, and information about the programme and its mission. Once tutors have completed the training, they are matched with a learner based on age, gender, language proficiency, academic interests and availability (since time zone differences may be significant).    

Each tutor-learner pair is then supported by a tutor coordinator and learner coordinator. Tutor coordinators check in with tutors on a weekly basis in order to keep track of attendance and help tutors tailor lessons to their learners’ specific needs. Learner coordinators support students’ learning and help them with any communication issues they may be experiencing.

Technology: Infrastructure, management and use


Paper Airplanes primarily uses free online cloud-based options such as Google applications to ensure low operational costs and widespread accessibility in the countries in which its learners are located. Learners must have an internet connection and usually access Paper Airplanes’ content on their mobile phones. Google applications were chosen as they are mobile-friendly and can easily be shared with new learners, with no limits on the number of users accessing content. Video-call platforms such as Skype,[5] WhatsApp,[6] Facebook Messenger,[7] Google Meets[8] and Zoom[9] are also used to allow volunteers and learners to interact during the one-to-one tutoring sessions. Volunteers and learners can choose their preferred platform for video calls.

Management and use

Google Drive is used to host curriculum content, such as lesson plans for tutors and assignments for learners. At the same time, tutors are at liberty to supplement the provided content with online materials of their choice. Tutor-learner pairs are free to use any platform they choose for their video sessions, as some platforms are more popular or more user-friendly depending on the equipment available locally for use by the learner or tutor. The programme indicates that many of its learners access its virtual learning provision using mobile phones.

Paper Airplanes provides separate online training interfaces for learners (Figure 4) and tutors (Figure 5).

Figure 4: Learner training page. Source: Paper Airplanes

Figure 5: Tutor training page. Source: Paper Airplanes

From 2021, Paper Airplanes plans to partner with Kiron Campus (see section on stakeholders and partnerships) to provide all of its educational services on a single platform.

Programme impact and challenges

Impact and achievements

Since its inception in 2014, the Paper Airplanes programme has served 2,087 learners. It has:

‘Directly connected 52 learners to university scholarships, and [...] connected 18 learners to training programmes to improve their employability’.

In 2020, the programme served 600 learners during the autumn term, almost doubling its average of 350 in previous semesters. Its 2019 Annual Report lists the following achievements:

  • 5 per cent learner retention rate;
  • 89 per cent learner satisfaction rate;
  • 82 per cent of English language learners felt prepared to use English in a work or university setting;
  • 15 per cent increase in the number of female learners (Paper Airplanes, 2019a).


Benefits to participants

Benefits to facilitators

Benefits to community


• Improved English language skills

• Participation in a meaningful volunteer opportunity

• Greater cross-cultural understanding


• Improved prospects for higher education

• Improved employability

• Improved intercultural communication

• Improved intercultural communication

• Increased knowledge of the challenges facing conflict-affected individuals


Table 1: General and specific programme benefits. Source: Paper Airplanes


The Paper Airplanes website includes a blog page describing a learner’s experience of the programme in detail. Ahmad is a Syrian refugee who had struggled to access education. ‘Paper Airplanes helped him by offering a range of courses and ultimately the possibility to become a staff member. But most of all, PA has given him the hope and the strength [to pursue] his goals’ (Alawia, 2020).

Mahmoud Alsteif is another example of a learner who has been empowered by the Paper Airplanes programme. Eager to improve his English in order to widen his educational and career prospects, Mahmoud, from Idlib, Syria, joined the organization shortly before his nineteenth birthday. His story features in the online publication, @dolescent (Rimawi, 2021).

The Paper Airplanes programme’s YouTube channel includes a brief video featuring Sara and Wafaa, a learner and tutor pair, talking about the benefits of the programme to them and their community (Paper Airplanes, 2019b).

Credit to Paper Airplanes

2019 Featured Student/Tutor Pair - Sara & Wafaa[10]


One challenge that must be addressed is the availability of technology. All stakeholders must have access to technological equipment in order to use the programme’s educational services. Refugee populations, however, may not have access to the required technology, or even to electricity.

The programme also cites retention of both learners and volunteer tutors as an area of concern. It has addressed this by improving training, creating a community and providing support through tutor and learner coordinators who check in regularly with both parties to answer questions and offer guidance.

Fundraising has proven to be a further challenge, due to increasing competition for philanthropic grants and other donor funds.

Stakeholders and partnerships

The Paper Airplanes programme has partnerships with 18 different organizations, including Nexford University, the University of Georgia, Monash University, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Talent Without Boundaries and Duolingo. As previously noted, Kiron Campus will support the consolidation of Paper Airplanes learning content on a single platform in 2021.

Future plans

The programme indicates a need to ‘actively develop the Paper Airplanes brand and communication strategies across our stakeholders, partners, and supporters’ primarily in order to strengthen financial support and further expand the existing programme. The programme also reports that it may seek accreditation or similar certification in future.


Paper Airplanes. 2021. Paper Airplanes website. [online] Available at: https://www.paper-airplanes.org/ [Accessed on 20 October 2021].

Paper Airplanes. 2019a. Annual Report. [online] Available at: https://www.paper-airplanes.org/annual-reports [Accessed on 20 October 2021].

Paper Airplanes. 2019b. #GivingTuesday 2019 featured student/tutor pair – Sara & Wafaa. [online] Paper Airplanes YouTube channel. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsWdsN1yGYk [Accessed on 21 October 2021].

Rimawi, H. 2021. Interview with Paper Airplanes participant, Mahmoud Alsteif. [online] @dolescent. Available at: https://www.adolescent.net/a/paper-airplanes-penpals-syrian-crisis [Accessed on 20 October 2021].

Alawia, N. 2020. The journey of a student in Paper Airplanes. [online]. Available at: https://www.paper-airplanes.org/blog/the-journey-of-a-student-in-paper-airplanes [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Institute of International Education (IIE). 2021. IIE PEER: A resource for displaced students [online] Available at: https://www.iie.org/Programs/IIE-PEER [Accessed on 20 October 2021].

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2019. Global trends: Forced displacement in 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/statistics/unhcrstats/5d08d7ee7/unhcr-global-trends-2018.html [Accessed on 20 October 2021].


[1] The video can be accessed at https://youtu.be/L1igL0e_an8

[2] Gmail is a free email service provided by Google. For more information, see https://www.google.com/gmail/about/.

[3] Google Workspace is a collection of cloud computing, productivity and collaboration tools, software and products developed and marketed by Google. For more information, see https://workspace.google.com/.

[4] CEFR: https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/level-descriptions  

[5] Skype is a proprietary telecommunications application. For more information, see https://www.skype.com/en/.

[6] WhatsApp Messenger is a US freeware, cross-platform, centralized messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service owned by Facebook, Inc. For more information, see https://www.whatsapp.com/?lang=en.

[7] Facebook Messenger is a US messaging app and platform developed by Facebook, Inc. For more information, see https://www.facebook.com/messenger/.

[8] Google Meet is a video communications service developed by Google. For more information, see https://meet.google.com/.

[9] Zoom Video Communications, Inc. is a US communication technology company. For more information, see https://zoom.us/.

[10] The video can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsWdsN1yGYk

For citation please use

Last update: 27 January 2022. Paper Airplanes Languages and Skills. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 2 December 2023, 23:27 CET)

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