Teaching Refugees How to Code

PowerToFly Staff

July 11, 2016

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by Megan Kelley

By the end of 2015, there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world-the highest number ever recorded. That includes 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million internally displaced persons, all of whom have been forced to leave their homes due primarily to war, persecution, and natural disasters. As the UN's former High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said, "Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion, and solidarity with people who have lost everything."

As these migrants relocate and resettle, they're left to find new jobs-and often they're not qualified to start or even continue the career paths they had at home. So what happens next? Over the past couple years, several organizations have emerged around the world with the same idea: teach them to code.

PowerToFly spoke with two free refugee coding schools to hear more about how they're helping people rebuild their lives, using the power of code.

Refugee Coding Project

Last year in Utah, Cotopaxi teamed up with the state's Department of Workforce Services to create the Refugee Coding Project. "It's a skills-based volunteer program focused on transferring skills in computer science to refugee youth," Cotopaxi's Chief Impact Officer Lindsey Kneuven explained to PowerToFly.

The program not only provides students with valuable career skills but also encourages them to think about social use cases of technology. According to Lindsey, "When we asked the kids about their dreams, a number of them talked about creating apps that would solve social problems they experienced in their home country." The 20-week course meets for two hours every weekend in Salt Lake City, and is attended by approximately 40 refugee students between the ages of 14 to 21. Each week, students study curriculum from Code.org and participate in workshops on topics like robotics or art and technology. "The workshops show the students the potential use cases for the curriculum," says Lindsey, "and help them interact with technology in a fun and creative way."

By the end of the program, students are guided towards further computer science education, and receive a course completion certificate. The first cohort of students graduated in June 2016, and the next group begins in August.

Refugee Coding Project works with six refugee communities in Utah, including refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Lindsey notes, "By week 3, everyone's sitting together and solving problems." The resulting discussions-among students, and between students and volunteer teachers-are invaluable.

In the future, Refugee Coding Project hopes to expand to include all of the 25 refugee communities in Utah. The organization also aims to encourage others to teach computer science skills to disadvantaged populations. "These skills are so valuable," explains Lindsey. "We're looking at how we can share the model in a way that would allow other people to replicate it."

Refugees on Rails

Refugees on Rails has two main goals: to provide computer science education to refugees and asylum seekers, and to introduce these newcomers to local software developers and the international tech scene. The program began in Berlin in 2015, but has quickly expanded to multiple cities throughout Germany and the globe. The organization offers two courses: Ruby on Rails (from which the program got its name), and JavaScript/Node.js.

When PowerToFly asked Nakeema Stefflbauer, Program Director of Refugees on Rails Berlin, to describe a typical Refugees on Rails student, she explained, "There isn't a typical student. We've had men and women, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Palestinians-everyone brings different experiences."

For example, Nakeema has worked with a 27-year-old Syrian college graduate with a business degree who's been forced out of Syria, Libya, and Egypt. This student "wants to connect his business background with digital tools, starting with web and mobile applications." Another student is an Afghan woman with a degree in information science, who's looking to learn web design and development. "She lives in a shelter," says Nakeema, "and she's teaching her husband, who is in Hamburg, everything that she is learning, via telephone and email after classes."

But the program isn't "a numbers game; we aren't just trying to get 'butts in seats,'" adds Nakeema. Potential students are accepted only if they show commitment to learning to code-a process that requires "a change in thinking, lots of perseverance, and the ability to get comfortable with uncertainty, if not outright failure" along the way.

Refugees on Rails hopes to expand to new cities and reach new students. Nakeema is also working on an offshoot program focusing specifically on women residents and refugees, "training them to apply web technologies to real-world problems." This program, called FrauenLoop, will launch later this year.

... and more

These two organizations are far from the only ones focused on training refugees and displaced persons in tech. Below are additional resources with similar missions:

Re:Coded: "a coding world-class bootcamp and innovation hub for refugees and displaced youth in Iraq."

Techfugee: "a social enterprise coordinating the international tech community's response to the needs of refugees."

Code Door: "a non-profit organisation compassionately preparing and educating refugees to become software developers."

ReDI School of Digital Integration: "teaching coding skills to create job opportunities and economic empowerment for refugees."

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