We’re in the midst of a very serious global crisis. Countless men, women, and children are fleeing war-torn countries. Countries that they used to call home- leaving behind loved ones and all their worldly possessions, with many attempting to reach asylum in the UK. They’ve had to leave well-paid, highly-skilled jobs, and can now no longer provide for their families.

Imagine arriving in a foreign country, not being accustomed to the culture or knowing the language. And that degree that you worked so hard to get? It’s now obsolete. It’s a very real problem that many refugees arriving in the UK are faced with, and a problem that Mursal Hedayat hopes to tackle.

Mursal came to the UK with her “kick arse” mum and sister after fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan as a young child. Her mother was one of only five women in her year to graduate with a civil engineering degree. Having spent over 10 years practising in the male-dominated field, as well as working for Save The Children, arriving in the UK Mursal’s Mum found herself unemployed and undervalued. This was the inspiration that drove Mursal to found her business- Chatterbox.

What started out as an idea in her bedroom, is now a fully fledged startup, backed with investment from Bethnal Green Ventures. We sat down with the founder to find out more.

EastLDN- So, what is Chatterbox?

Mursal Hedayat- We’re a language tutoring service…we offer individuals and businesses and other organisations bespoke packages of language tuition and cultural training [from skilled refugees]. So at the moment the first service we’ve developed is conversation practice. The refugees are teaching their native language to other people….so some people [want to] learn a language for professional reasons, some people just really llike learning languages, and [others] want to stay in education. We’re specifically targeting the business market because we recognise that all of our tutors are tremendously experienced professionals and we [want to bring] them together with professionals in the UK to teach them languages. 

EL- Where did the idea for Chatterbox come from?

MH- My family are originally from Afghanistan originally. My parents worked incredibly hard to put themselves through university [there]. My Mum especially in that sort of…patriarchal society. She managed to graduate from university with a civil engineering degree [and was] one of only five women in her year who actually came out as a civil engineer and spent more than 10 years practising….a few years after I was born things got a bit too difficult for her to raise two children in a war zone and she decided that was it and she left for the UK. So here’s someone who came from a very, very deprived background, worked so hard to enter into a skilled job and then had to leave for very traumatic reasons. Then experienced a second trauma because once she arrived here there was little that could help her access work…..one of the biggest barriers to refugees finding work is lack of UK work experience….[it] means that they can’t get jobs….that makes it even harder for them because they have gaps in there CVs and it’s like tis spiral and that’s what happened to my Mum….There was no one really to help her….I saw that as where Chatterbox could step in- finding those people with massive amounts of skill, talent, degrees, professional experience, and instead of letting them drift into cycles of unemployment lifting them into skilled professions like tutoring and giving them a better chance to access work they were in before.

EL- How do you recruit the tutors?

MH- Social media is our best friend. We have about 30 tutors signed up. In the beginning it was a lot of very low tech posting on Facebook groups and that got about a third of them and we’ve also throughout been building relationships with refugee organisations like Breaking Barriers, Transitions, all these other groups who are doing great things to help refugees into work who owe our compliments, they will be referring people onto us, but actually the thing that gets us our most recruits now is referrals. So people referring their friends onto us because they think that there’s never been an opportunity like it for refugees.

EL- What makes you stand out?

MH- So we’re specifically targeting the business language market becuae we recognise that all of our tutors are tremendously experienced proffesionals and we think that bringing them together with professionals in the uk to teach languages it gives us an edge that no one else can say that if you wanna kearn financial Arabic- you can learn financial Arabic from an Arabic financier but we can say that and the only reason that’s possible is because there are so many skilled and talented refugees unemployed at the moment. There’s many from Syria, there’s Iraqi, Saudi Arabia, the Kurdish, Iran, Afghani, Sudanese.

EL- What do you think of the current refugee situation?

MH- It’s something that has been happening for a very long time. If you look at a graph, the number of refugees arriving into the UK….right now is a third of what it was in 2000-2004…..People have only just started to take notice probably because conflicts….are now happening in Europe so it’s happening, so to speak, on our front door. [I feel] conflicted. We have all these rules about who is and who isn’t allowed to be where and it’s completely artificial. [They’re] completely constructed by humans. I understand why they’re there because you can’t really have things like social security like the state without borders that are defined. However in exceptional circumstances when people will literally die if you don’t open the door, in those circumstances, we ought to make an exception. For people to say the rules should be observed in every case, they are literally condemning those people to death…..I’m not one of those people that’s like “open borders”- in a dream universe, that’d be great. But for now, let’s just make an exception for when we need to save lives.

EL- What were you doing before you started Chatterbox?

MH- I was on a programme called Year Here, which is a post-graduate programme in social entrepreneurship. Sort of like an alternative masters. I did that after I studied at Leeds University.

EL- What’s it like starting your own business?

MH- So, I’m a sole founder which means for a really long time it was just me in my bedroom….just trying to hold an idea in my head and bring it into reality. That was kind of fun doing it when it’s just in your head, when you’re just playing around with the idea. Bringing other people on the journey with you, that’s fun. When you actually have to do shit, that’s when this wide-eye sets in, and it’s so fun. It’s the funnest job you could ever imagine. I work everyday from about 8am ‘til 8 or 10pm and I don’t even realise I’ve done it….Because you’re creating something that is very personal, it’s about what you find [you’re] most passionate about….I would recommend it to anyone who can [do it].

EL- Any success stories so far?

MH- There’s none that I can talk about because they haven’t happened yet. I don’t want to jinx it. [But] we’re on the verge of our first two contracts. One is with a tech company that wants a native speaker to test out one language version of their technology….Then we have a much larger contract about to be negotiated with a university in London who want to purchase conversation practice with our tutors.

EL- What plans do you have for the future?

So, hopefully having secured those first two contracts we will be delivering the best damn service we are capable of, and constantly evaluating our proposition and refining what it is we offer. I think over the next year we want to find a model that is really easily replicable because our long-term goal is to take Chatterbox across the UK and to different parts of Europe and the world that are currently under strain of needing to integrate large refugee populations. So once we figure out exactly the service we’re delivering and who we’re delivering it to, and it’s profitable and sustainable, then we want to take it to Berlin, Germany, Sweden.

EL- Any advice for any budding social entrepreneurs out there?

MH- Don’t do it. I’m joking. It’s a very risky, very personal decision. I don’t want to advise anyone. I think entrepreneurship is too limited anyway because it’s such a risky endeavour. I might be from a refugee background, and I’m not wealthy by any means, but I am so privileged enough to be in London, which is the heart of the start up scene in the UK and the hub around the world. I think be my advice would be pat yourself on the back because it’s a bloody hard decision to make, and back yourself. It takes a lot of confidence to start your own thing but it’s important not to lose your confidence when you actually start doing it. So back yourself throughout. Don’t let the doubt set in.

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Written by Jennifer Wallis

Photography by Jennifer Wallis