duolingo helps refugees“Language is what ties us all together in our cultures, in our own countries. Being able to communicate is a vital part of the human experience.” – Photojournalist Justin Merriman

Duolingo is a popular language-learning platform available on desktop and mobile phones serving to boost the language skills of people around the world. Known for its iconic green owl mascot, Duolingo offers free courses in 38 different languages. These include widely spoken languages like English and Spanish, as well as endangered languages such as Navajo and Hawaiian. It even offers courses in fictional languages like Klingon from Star Trek and High Valyrian from Game of Thrones.

While not specifically an original intent of the platform, Duolingo has grown in popularity among immigrants and refugees who seek to learn the language of their new homes. Recently, the company even made a documentary film about how Duolingo helps refugees.

The Importance of Communication

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019. Among the world’s displaced people, 20 million are refugees or asylum-seekers who have crossed borders into another country. Most refugees come from Syria, who have seen 6.6 million displaced people.

Language is extremely important to everyday life. In unfamiliar situations, language can act as a barrier to interactions and opportunities among those who can’t understand each other. For impoverished refugees, learning the local language is both vital and extremely challenging. The resources refugees need to learn a new language are often unavailable or not easily accessible.

Duolingo’s Role

In 2018, Duolingo’s creators noticed an intriguing pattern in their 300 million person user base. The most popular languages being learned in many countries were actually the native language of the area. In Miami, most Duolingo users were learning English and in Sweden, most users were learning Swedish. They found that most of these users were immigrants and refugees learning to speak the language of their new home.

Duolingo helps refugees by making language learning accessible and convenient. Available to anyone with access to an electronic device, the learning platform teaches basic conversational skills in a fun and easy way. It teaches reading, writing, listening and speaking through conversational situations where users simultaneously learn vocabulary and grammar. After receiving thousands of thank you letters from global users who benefitted from the app, Duolingo decided to create a documentary film following real refugee users as they learned new languages and navigated their new environments.

Something Like Home

“Something Like Home” highlights the stories of four refugees. Photojournalist Justin Merriman went to Turkey and Jordan to interview these refugees and create the film, which is available for free on Youtube or at Merriman states that “It wasn’t really, in the beginning, about Syria and displaced refugees. It was about people using language to change their lives.”

One of the featured refugees, Noor, is a Syrian refugee who fled to Iraq, Dubai and finally to Turkey. Noor was the only refugee from the film able to attend its premiere at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh, as her Iraqi citizenship allowed her to obtain a travel visa over the others who are Syrian citizens. She now works as a computer programmer and software engineer in Turkey, speaking five languages.

Another featured refugee, Ahmed, also fled Syria for Turkey where he now works as an engineer overseeing water and sanitation programs for internally displaced Syrians. Ahmed, formerly an engineer in Syria, was only able to find employment in Turkey after using Duolingo to learn the language and communicate his skills to employers. He is a prime example of how Duolingo helps refugees in these critical situations

Noor and Ahmed are just two examples of the global refugee experience—being violently torn from normal life and forced to start over somewhere completely unfamiliar. Duolingo helps refugees by freely offering an opportunity to make the transition into their new lives easier.

Kathy Wei
Photo: Wikimedia

Documentaries About Poverty
Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu can be a means to unproductive and endless binge-watching. However, they can also be an instrument of political and social change. Documentary films can be some of the highest quality filmmaking out there, as well as a great tool for nonprofit organizations. Documentaries about poverty can cover almost any issue, discussing topics of hunger, health, education and more. Below are eight documentaries about poverty that are definitely worth watching.

8 Influential Documentaries about Poverty

  1. Poverty, Inc.: This film examines and critiques the ways that good intentions from nonprofits and charity organizations can actually end up hurting the communities they wish to help. Some of these strategies include the Western attitude of patronizing developing countries and flooding a nation with handouts and thereby hurting its economy. Poverty, Inc. points out the flaws in certain forms of aid and how organizations and governments can fix them.
  2. Why Poverty?: This is actually a series of eight documentaries about poverty that are available for streaming on the PBS website. Broadly speaking, the series asks why poverty still exists for over a billion people around the world. The episodes aim for awareness, examining the causes of poverty and looking for solutions.
  3. We Feed the World: This film depicts the disparity between the amount of food available in the developing world with how much they produce and eventually waste in those same nations.
  4. Thought for Food: One of the shorter documentaries about poverty, this film also focuses on hunger. It tells the stories of students who created solutions for large food security problems. Consequently, it can give the viewer some ideas on how to fight hunger with their own skills.
  5. Girl Rising: This documentary looks at the stories of nine different girls in Asia, South America and Africa and how they used their education to overcome obstacles. Celebrities narrated this film without sounding patronizing. Overall, Girl Rising illustrates the power of education in desperate circumstances through messages of inspiration and triumph.
  6. Sewing Hope: While movements such as “Kony 2012” examined the plight of boys in Uganda forced to become child soldiers, this documentary looks at what happened to young girls and the quest to improve their lives. Many girls were taken as sex slaves and returned to their communities with their captors’ children. The documentary also examines Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe’s mission to give these women independence through vocational training like sewing and tailoring.
  7. On the Way to School: This documentary inspects the greater global issue of education through a closer look at four personal stories in India, Morocco, Patagonia and Kenya. It is thus a great film to raise awareness about the things the Western world takes for granted in education.
  8. Bending the Arc: This brand new documentary tells the story of the organization Partners in Health. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival this past January and is one to keep an eye out for.

Ellen Ray

Photo: Flickr

RefugeesFilm is undoubtedly one of the most compelling forms of storytelling and some of the most powerful yet untold stories are those of the refugees.  Many millions have left their homelands and travelled across the globe throughout history, inspiring film-makers to capture their journeys. Here are four movies about refugees—two older, fictional films and two newer, real-life stories—that portray the experiences of refugees in an important and meaningful way. Although this list is only comprised of four movies about refugees, hundreds of documentaries, feature films and shorts are available online and in stores.


In This World (2002): Shot like a documentary, In This World portrays two Afghan refugees’ land journey. Unlike many other fictitious films about refugees, this film shows a fairly complete picture of a refugee’s journey, which includes the endless hours of waiting, hours of panic, and brief, beautiful moments of hope.

Welcome (2009): A beautiful, artistic and rather unsentimental picture of one Iraqi Kurd’s attempt to swim the English Channel in order to gain asylum, this French film portrays the stark situation of many homeless refugees living in France at the time and the legal dangers that awaited the French people who helped asylum-seekers.


The Land Between (2014): Documenting the everyday lives of Sub-Saharan migrants trapped between their homelands and the prospect of a new life in Europe, The Land Between addresses one of the most important questions of all migrant crises, whether past, present or future: why, and how, do people risk their lives and everything they own?

Neuland (2015): Neuland explores the lives of immigrants and refugees from all over the globe as they acclimate to life in Switzerland. Following the students in one class, the film shows the hardships and joys of building a new life in a foreign country.

In addition to many other full-length fictitious and real-life movies about refugees, many organizations, like Amnesty International, compile short films to spread awareness about refugees. In the end, whether short or long, real or imagined, movies about refugees provide an invaluable window into the lives of victims from all over the world.

Sage Smiley

Photo: Flickr

Movies about human rights have the power to make the problems of distant countries personal to viewers. Whether it is a documentary or a fictional story, the impact of film can be extraordinary. These five movies are just a few of the films that highlight human rights issues throughout the world.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda depicts the atrocities of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Following decades of power struggles between Hutus and Tutsis, the Hutu government sought to cleanse the country of Tutsis. This infamous movie about human rights is based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, who opened his hotel to Tutsi refugees during the conflict despite being a Hutu himself.

While the Rwandan genocide occurred over two decades ago, the country still faces crippling poverty. The film illustrates the effect of violence and civil war on already vulnerable nations.

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Beasts of No Nation never reveals the country it is set in. However, the events within the film continue to happen in various regions. The main character, Agu, loses his family to the violence around him. He is eventually forced to become a child soldier and goes on to commit atrocious crimes.

Sierra Leone, Uganda and Sudan are among the various African regions where child soldiers are recruited. The film highlights the effects of poverty and conflict on children within war-torn nations.

India’s Daughter (2015)

India’s Daughter follows the aftermath of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh in 2012. The event, which took place in an off duty bus, raised various concerns throughout the country about women’s safety. The documentary interviews a wide array of individuals including Singh’s parents, the parents of the accused and the bus driver.

The documentary brings India’s gender bias to the forefront as it depicts the various protests that emerged following the crime.

5 Broken Cameras (2011)

5 Broken Cameras is a documentary shot by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer, in a West Bank village known as Bil’in. The film is also co-directed by Isreali filmmaker, Guy Davidi.

The documentary depicts life in the West Bank through footage of protests and Burnat’s own family. The film gives raw insight into the lives of those living within an unstable and impoverished region; it is one of the great movies about human rights.

When Elephants Fight (2015)

This film highlights the underbelly of consumerism and its implications in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Electronics companies desire minerals from this region to manufacture their products. However, this practice has led to an illegal mineral trade as well as the rise of warlords within the country.

The documentary calls for companies to hold themselves accountable for the war and poverty that plagues the nation.

Movies about human rights are important and informative as global communities work together to end abuses against the most vulnerable individuals and groups.

Saroja Koneru

Photo: Flickr

When you have enough money and food to be comfortable, it can be easy to be unaware of just how many people in the world are lacking in these basics. Sometimes an inspiring film can really drive this point home, with moving stories and imagery that make it shockingly clear that millions of people in the world struggle with poverty every day. These are a few of the documentaries and films about poverty that give an idea of what poverty is like, or attempt to explain the nature of poverty.

We Feed the World: This film examines the contrast between the overproduction and waste of food among the affluent and the scarcity among those who are hungry. Food production is also explored. The story is told via an interview with U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Zigler.

Slumdog Millionaire: One of the most popular films about poverty, Slumdog Millionaire is about how an orphan growing up in poverty in Mumbai comes to be a contestant on India’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The question is, how did an uneducated orphan come to have the answers to some many of the game’s trivia questions? Moving visual imagery and dramatic storytelling bring both the reality of poverty and the hope amidst it to life.

A Place at the Table: This film, featuring actor-director Jeff Bridges, examines hunger in the U.S. The staggering statistic of 50 million Americans living in household lacking food security is given and this in the “richest country in the world,” reported Bills Moyers & Company. A Place at the Table tells us not only how many Americans are going hungry, but what tax dollars are being spent on instead. It also follows the lives of Americans living with food insecurity. Often they are people who are working full-time. Despite adding many food banks in the U.S., the problem persists.

The End of Poverty: This is another film that asks why there is so much poverty existing alongside so much wealth in the world. Directed by Philippe Diaz and narrated by Martin Sheen, the film takes the view that our current economic system is not only responsible for this situation, but perpetuates it and keeps it from truly changing. A look is taken at policies that keep rich countries rich, and poor countries poor.

Poverty, Inc.: This documentary takes a hard look at how the system of giving aid is and is not working. Although the film acknowledges the good in giving, it raises the question of what happens once money or aid is given. Are there unforeseen consequences? Sometimes aid can create dependence in a community in need. It’s important to examine the most efficient strategies for helping communities to rise above poverty and learn the tools to keep themselves out of it.

These thought-provoking documentaries and films about poverty bring new perspective to how we think about giving aid to those in poverty.

Katherine Hamblen

Photo: Flickr

In 2013, nine-year-old California native Vivienne Harr discovered that there are 29.8 million people in slavery today, many of them children. Harr was determined to do something, and quickly started her own lemonade stand with the slogan, “Make a Stand Lemonade.” Harr originally had the goal of freeing 500 enslaved children, but has since touched countless lives and continues to raise money today through her mission.

Pretty endearing story, right? A group of upcoming and passionate filmmakers thought so, too. In February 2014, Stillmotion Productions released their first feature-length, independent documentary, #standwithme, a film telling Harr’s story and winning the hearts of viewers everywhere.

Since the premiere of #standwithme, Stillmotion has gone on to produce their second film, Old Skool Cafe, which tells the story of a San Francisco supper club run by troubled youth. The Old Skool Café gives youth who were never believed in the chance to serve others in meaningful ways. The supper club is equipped with live entertainment, gourmet meals and quality service by youth who once resorted to robbery, drug dealing and gangs for a sense of belonging and direction.

Founder Teresa Goines spent years as a corrections officer, witnessing the “revolving door” of youth turning in the wrong direction without the proper resources. Today, Goines runs the supper club but offers any position, business- or service-related, to the youth, standing by as their mentor and apprentice.

All she wants is for them to know that “we see the gold in [them] and we want other people to see the gold in [them],” Goines shared in her Old Skool Café interview for the Stillmotion team.

It’s inspiring stories like these that capture the hearts and attention of Stillmotion members. “We’re a small collection of curious, loud, trouble-making souls who believe that powerful stories can change the world,” the Stillmotion team shares on their website.

In response to such amazing stories, all I want to do is share them with the world. Although I have tried, rallying large quantities of people around my small, unimpressive TV to watch these documentaries with me, however, has been largely unsuccessful.

That is where Tugg comes in. Working in collaboration with filmmakers like Stillmotion, Tugg offers a resource for individuals interested in having an independent film played at one of their local theaters. Once contacted, Tugg sets up the entire event, an event page, promotional tools and plenty of guidance along the way. In addition, Tugg allows the host to choose a cause of their choice for a portion of ticket sale proceeds to go toward.

Thanks to Tugg, I will be hosting a showing of #standwithme at a local theater. Through Tugg support, I have been able to sell 93 tickets for the film and hope to host many events in the future.

– Heather Klosterman

Sources: #standwithme, Stillmotion, Tugg 1, Tugg 2
Photo: NBC Bay Area

Poverty Reduction Can Take Many Paths
With a need as immense as reducing global poverty, there are many different ways one can choose to affect change and inspire others to get involved. Poverty reduction can take many paths and many methods can be employed in the fight. One compelling and effective approach is the use of documentary film as a means of educating and emotionally inspiring others.

In an effort to raise awareness and ignite involvement, the non-profit organization Global Citizen has partnered with Development and Aid World News Service (DAWNS) to provide two $1,000 grants for humanitarian documentaries.

By going to the Global Citizen website, interested parties can vote for the 12 finalists who have started projects to impact and create a better understanding of the complex effects of extreme poverty.

One film follows 15 grassroots organizers in Cameroon who are mobilizing communities through peacebuilding, social justice, human rights and more. Another tries to tell the day-to-day story of war victims in Somalia. Many others address women’s issues, such as a film based in Libya which consist of interviews with Nobel Peace Prize winners, or an entry from Gambia focusing on the largely female impoverished agricultural population, or in the Hindu culture of India where boys represent status and girls are regarded as a financial drain on the family, or in Sub-Saharan Africa where maternal death is still systemic.

Finalist Nosarieme Garrick, an African woman living in America, focuses on innovations on the African continent evolving from younger generations. Her series will follow unexpected and “hopeful” developments in the humanitarian, music, fashion, film, arts and business sectors. Garrick wants to change the perception of “her” continent. “Africa is a growing force to be reckoned with. As young people return back from the diaspora, and democracies become more stable, the former image of the “Hopeless Continent” is in desperate need of shedding.”

Anyone can affect change in a way that speaks to them; it’s just a matter of taking that first, crucial step.

– Mary Purcell

Source: Global Poverty Project