Displaced Syrian developers bringing unique skill sets to benefit the region

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Syrian entrepreneurs and developers at Startup Weekend Damascus (image via Huffington Post).

Syria’s nearly four-year-old civil war has largely ground to a halt the country’s tech scene. Among the 3.8 million refugees that have fled as a result of the fighting are around 80% of Syria’s developers, say entrepreneurs Moe Ghashim and Mohammed Habach, developers who powered the country’s nascent yet flourishing tech and startup ecosystem. Without them, Syrian tech workers who remain have had to resort to creative solutions to getting work done (as we covered in the first post in this series last week).

But outside of Syria, entrepreneurs are particularly keen to hire Syrian developers, say several tech entrepreneurs based throughout the region. Despite challenging employment situations in the regional countries to which the vast majority have fled, including discrimination in Lebanon, visa problems in the UAE, and lower pay virtually everywhere, Syrian developers in particular are better suited to today’s tech scene than their other Arab counterparts. 

Why do Syrians cost less than their regional counterparts?

“Most developers I know who have left Syria have gone to Turkey or Lebanon, and some to Egypt, because they don’t need a visa to get there,” says Habach, the editor-in-chief of Arabic language tech news site Tech-WD (although a controversial new visa policy for Syrians entering Lebanon may complicate matters).

Money, obviously, occupies a central position in the dreams and fears of entrepreneurs the world over. And Syrians who’ve fled their homes are “desperate,” says Shopgo’s Moe Ghashim, and willing to work for less. Because of this, “there’s a movement [region-wide] to hire Syrian developers.”

In Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and the UAE, “Syrians are accepting much less money [than other nationalities], and not only in development and programming,” Habach reports. “I’ve known designers and web developers to take much lower than market rate,” adds the Dubai-based Ghaith Akkad, cofounder of Picasso Interactive, an interactive and digital communication agency. How much lower? “20 to 30%,” says Ghashim.

This is for at least two reasons. Because of their often-tenuous situation in a new country, as well as the family and community they likely left behind back home, Syrian tech workers are often “working harder and more” than their counterparts of other nationalities, “freelancing on the side, juggling a few things,” says Abedalmohimen Alagha, the founder of web platform manager Hsoub. “They’ll often take any job they’re offered. We don’t exploit that; we don’t pay them less than market rate, but I’ve heard that others do.”

But also, Syrian developers are “used to earning less,” says Akkad. Whereas the average entry-level developer in Lebanon would probably make $700-800 per month (according to Wamda developer Ayman Farhat), the average pre-war monthly salary for an entry-level Syrian developer was $200-250, says Ghashim. “You’d pay $1,000 per month for a super star developer,” he continues. So Syrian developers coming to Lebanon would “feel good” – at least temporarily – about making double their salary in Syria, even though it won’t go as far in Lebanon given the higher cost of living.

Despite the fact that entrepreneurs may be taking advantage of Syrian developers in dire straits, Ghashim believes there’s a silver lining: “the way I look at it, they’re getting access to new markets and a new experience. They’re compensated in ways other than money.”

Challenge breeds creativity

The other, more nebulous, reason the entrepreneurs give for the regional demand for Syrian developers is that the difficulty they’ve faced getting their collective foot in the door of the international tech community has made them better, more determined, and more creative developers. 

As the global tech ecosystem slowly expands beyond tech centers in the US, Europe, and East Asia, open source platforms are increasingly gaining traction among users in the developing world due to their low cost and ease of use. Entrenched tech companies like Microsoft and governments alike are increasingly transitioning to open source platforms so as to keep up with the paradigm shift.

This graph illustrates the global surge in popularity of open source Android smartphones.

Because of the United States’ 2011 economic sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, says Ghashim, Syrians weren’t able to access coding languages and development tools that required licenses, like Microsoft’s ASP or iOS’s Objective-C. As a result, “Syrian developers have become known for having certain skill sets,” he continues, including open source coding language PHP and Java (the language used for the Android operating system). “Open source is something that’s growing tremendously worldwide,” Ghashim believes; given their facility with the open source development model, Syrians may be better suited for today’s tech climate than their regional counterparts.

But further, working in tech as a Syrian, for Ghashim, “made me realize the importance of adapting, change, and accepting loss… Maybe this is why people want to work with Syrians; when you lose everything and you develop the tools to adapt, you become extremely fast…. War has many ugly faces, but it does make us the most flexible people around.”

“But maybe I’m too optimistic,” he laughs.

Wamda developers Ayman Farhat and Ali Koubeissi contributed to this story.

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