Ideas Beyond Borders is training student translators to make knowledge available across the Middle East, creating career opportunities for a new generation of young people seeking a better future
It was one of Rand Issam Al-Shuraify’s happiest moments when she secured the award for the top translator at the University of Mosul in Iraq last year. “It recognized all my hard work and achievements,” the 21-year-old says.
Prizes are awarded twice a year to top performers in the University Student Translator Program, which is run by Ideas Beyond Borders at five different universities across Iraq, including the University of Mosul and Babylon University. Funded in partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation, the program is training the next generation of volunteers to translate articles on the internet into Arabic.
More than 200 students have participated in the program, which offers a semester of extracurricular webinars on translating and editing articles for Wikipedia Arabic, teaching them how to think critically about good sources, and leading volunteer communities committed to sharing knowledge.
The importance of such a program cannot be understated. “What is important about translation, is not only it is a 21st-century skill, but it also connects people in the region to the outside world and enhances cultural exchange. Students like Rand are cultural and scientific ambassadors.” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, the founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.
Al-Shuraify juggles her job as a translator alongside her studies in dentistry at the University of Mosul, working on the bus every day. “I spend six hours in college then it takes me an hour and a half to get home, so I take the opportunity to translate on the journey rather than hating time wasted on the road.”
She was among several other top students on the course given the opportunity to join IBB’s flagship translation program House of Wisdom 2.0, which to date has translated over 24,000 Wikipedia articles and news entries into Arabic and other native languages, amounting to over 45 million words on subjects including human rights, free speech, critical thinking, and science.
Just a fraction of online content – around 3 percent – is available in Arabic, despite it being the fourth most widely spoken language among internet users. In a region where freedom of press and information is frequently curtailed, House of Wisdom 2.0 is providing access to knowledge that counters extremism, fights oppression, and supports education across the Middle East.
On the point and value behind this program, Faisal said “The new generations in the MENA region and in Iraq, in particular, need and are looking for new and fresh ideas because they saw what doesn’t work, what makes IBB special is that it is led by and for people in the region and understands the nuances of local context, and people’s needs.”
Al-Shuraify now spends 14 hours a week translating Wikipedia articles from English into Arabic and plans to specialize in medical translation when she completes her degree. “I love translation, especially scientific subjects. I want to transfer this knowledge to the Arab world,” she says.
There are more than 220 translators in the program, which started out translating Wikipedia articles into Arabic in 2018 and has grown to cover online content and books in multiple languages, including Kurdish, Farsi, and Pashto. It has since spawned other IBB programs that make information and opportunities accessible, empowering Middle East youth to create a future built on knowledge and ideas in a region where extremist narratives and authoritarian regimes threaten to stamp out free speech and dispel critical thought.
“I realized that knowledge is, without doubt, the most influential weapon against evil. By translating knowledge into Arabic I want to prove that we can make the world a better place,” says Momen Mohamad, who was recognized as a top student on the course and now works with House of Wisdom 2.0 from his home in Mosul.
Isis still has a presence in the city where he and other IBB translators face significant risks to continue their work. But for Rand and her colleagues, it’s a price worth paying to help their city recover from the three-year occupation when the militants cut the internet and burned books to stamp out information that didn’t conform to their extreme belief system.
“I think that IBB can reconnect Mosul to the world after many years of darkness and provide people living there with jobs,” Rand says.