Siroun Shamigian and Nirsine Makkouk sat in a café in Hamra waiting to meet a few “users” – people who were using their social collaborative Arabic storytelling platform Kamkalima. It would be the first time meeting users live, and their excitement was palpable.

Creating their social platform is only the first phase of a rapidly evolving project of the two educators-turned entrepreneurs.

They’ve planned a number of additional game features, as well as a Kamkalima app for mobile phones and tablets. What’s more, they have developed an innovative educational platform in Arabic for use in schools and universities that they plan to take to market this fall. 

The project had received international attention, winning the best womenled project at the MIT Enterprise

Forum in Cairo in May 2014, and a spot in Silicon Valley in September 2015, sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs. It was also one of five entrepreneurial projects to win the EUsupported MedGeneration Mentoring Program for Lebanese Entrepreneurs competition. In this program, each of the selected startups was matched in a monitoring/mentoring program with a mentor from the Lebanese Diaspora. Kamkalima’s co-founders shared their story with HOME for Summer – a story of two teachers whose frustration with the lack of viable online tools and content in Arabic led them to work on filling the gap.

How it all started

Shamigian and Makkouk, both longtime educators with an interest in creative teaching methods, realized that Arab-language users were being left out of many exciting digital developments.

“What got me into all of this was need,” said Shamigian, who has spent 23 years in education. “As a teacher and a technology integration coordinator, it was my job to research and test tools that would improve teaching and learning. I love using technology, not to deliver content because practically all kids have a device in their pocket that will do that, but to get them to think critically and to solve problems.

“Where I was failing was in finding tools for use in Arabic or for subjects taught in Arabic, like history or civics.

When I could find digital resources in Arabic, they often had grammatical errors or inappropriate content. I found awesome software for teaching in English, but not for Arabic teachers.
This is unfair.” 

Shamigian and Makkouk described their shared vision of an online tool that engages adults and youth in developing a collective imagination and inspires civic-mindedness.

The social platform invites anyone who wants to participate in collaborative storytelling in Arabic to contribute 300-character increments (the equivalent of two tweets) toward weaving together a story. Platform users vote to decide between story additions, together determining how a story unfolds. Once completed, each story is edited and kept in the platform’s library. Shamigian and Makkouk hope prominent public figures (authors, activists, journalists, artists, leaders and others) will participate. 

The social platform solves the first problem – generating content. By encouraging creative writing and open letters on issues, the social platform nurtures the creation of new, engaging content in Arabic. Someone starts a story or a letter with a phrase of 300 characters. Other users see what was written and those interested in the storyline or letter topic can continue it, up to 300 characters. Users vote on what to include in the story. They may also select illustrations from an open gallery of pictures or add their own.

So what happens to the stories? Some will be selected for publication in book and other media formats, like multisensory digital interactive books. Any revenues will be shared among all the collaborators, authors and artists. 

A resource for educators

In addition to the social platform, Kamkalima will launch a private platform for schools this September. Teachers can choose from a variety of criteria to direct the storytelling.

It is engaging because it won’t just teach grammar. Instead, it engages the students in a process of writing, layering and thinking together, said Shamigian.

The educational platform fills a void, she added. “The lack of digital resources – tools and content – is a big problem for those teaching in Arabic.”

Even a lot of traditional books in Arabic have stereotypical gender roles and errors. “In books in primary and secondary schools, women are not problem solvers, they wait for their husbands to come HOME. Leading roles are all men.”

On top of that, existing Arabic sites often have small font and are hard to read, especially for young readers. Add to that the problem that many youth don’t like Arabic, said Shamigian, and you can see what a big challenge teachers face. “Many young people see Arabic as an old language, distant from them today.”

Kamkalima engages students in a process of using Arabic to tell stories and engage in civic-minded discussions. It allows students to write alternative stories.

For Makkouk, the thrilling process that Kamkalima offers is the opportunity for youth to work together. “Teachers are sometime at a loss about how to engage their students in contemporary issues, especially in Arabic. The tool itself teaches collaboration and gets youth engaged in current issues. It fosters the values we want to teach – teamwork and civic engagement. It gives everyone a say.”

During the writing process, the entries are anonymous. Consequently, students feel free to really express themselves, said Makkouk. “It is very therapeutic. In fact, we have had therapists contact us about developing it for use in therapy.” 

A labor of love

Kamkalima began as a self-funded project, said Shamigian. “We’ve had some volunteers help us and the MedGeneration mentor is there for us whenever we have a question. He is hardworking and available,” she said.
“His name is Jean-Marie Dabbaghian. He is a young entrepreneur of Lebanese origin living in Paris.
“He is always available to answer questions, and give guidance when needed. He also helps us get connected to specific talents we might need along the way. 
” Kamkalima has received seed investment money to develop the idea, but so far, no one has been paid anything yet. Shamigian quit her longtime teaching/coordinator position in May in order to give this project her full attention. Makkouk is also fully on board.
“I miss teaching,” said Shamigian. “But it takes sacrifice to bring an idea to reality.”