Teaching coding to young refugees will generate job opportunities to thousands

Could teaching young refugees how to code secure their future paths? (Image via SAP).

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There are almost 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, according to figures published by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Seventeen percent of them are males aged between five and 17 years old. Females within the same age bracket also reach 16 percent.

This remarkably high rate of youth has triggered several NGOs and institutions to kick-off learning schemes to involve these youngsters and put them on the right path. Tech-related subjects and coding were two of the main focus areas endorsed by various organizations and bodies.

“Teaching refugees to code empowers everyone in the community: parents, teachers, volunteers, children, universities, schools, and nonprofits. Including IT education in education programs for refugees equips thousands of young refugees with highly job-relevant skills for future employability and self-sufficiency,” Houssam Chahin, regional private sector partnerships manager for MENA at UNHCR told Wamda.

Examples are numerous

By setting up and multiplying coding workshops and bootcamps for young people (aged 8 – 24) predominantly inside refugee camps, UNHCR’s Refugee Code Week is sustaining tangible and job relevant education interventions across the EMEA region. First announced at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, Refugee Code Week supports the United Nations New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which aims to strengthen the economic and social contribution of migrants to their local communities and host countries. It gets organized across several camps, community centers and universities in Egypt, France, Greece, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Sweden and Turkey.

SAP, a market leader in enterprise application software, partnered with UNHCR and members of the civil society to implement the Refugee Code Week initiative. SAP held coding workshops for over 10,000 refugees in the region. Refugee Code Week focused on education as one of the options for self-sufficiency and future employability. “By training young people in high-demand coding skills, Refugee Code Week helped restore hope, while building a pipeline of skilled workforce for Middle East companies currently seeking IT talent,” said Chahin.

According to Batoul Husseini, director of corporate social responsibility, SAP MENA, the company is training workers for a digital economy as part of its corporate responsibility. “Going further, we believe that leading companies have a moral obligation to initiate people into the modern economy, regardless of where they come from,” she told Wamda. She explained that the second edition of Refugee Code Week, SAP, along with its partners, was able to help young people crack the code for a better future and more equitable world. “More than 15,000 children and youth were empowered with coding skills across nine countries this year: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Greece, France, and Sweden,” she said.

The second edition of The MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) for the Pan Arab Region’s Innovate for Refugees is also following the same path. It announced that out of the 1,809 applications, 20 teams from 12 countries qualified for the semi-finals to compete during the final ceremony which will take place in the King Hussein Business Park Auditorium in Amman on January 28, 2018. The teams were divided as follows: Six from Jordan, four from Lebanon and one from each of Kenya, Egypt, Tunisia, Sweden, France, Greece, USA, Germany, Austria and Turkey.

Commenting on the project, Hala Fadel, MITEF Pan Arab chair, said in a press release: “The size of participation in this year's competition has been remarkable, especially by the refugees themselves, reaching 25 percent. We are working towards enabling refugees to express their ideas and helping them transform them into innovative solutions to the challenges they face in their camps.” MITEF supported the React hub educational program that aims to attract refugees to enroll in computer training programs, which will be launched, for the first time this year, for two weeks from January 14 till 28, 2018.

EraseAllKittens.com (EAK) is a UK web-based platform game that teaches girls aged 8-14 professional coding languages, e.g. HTML, and eliminates their fear of coding by gamifying the learning process. E.A.K has partnered with Techfugees, a nonprofit organization catering to the needs of refugees, to give free accounts to girls in Syria. The first E.A.K workshop was organized on October 30, 2017 in Homs, Syria in partnership with IT Advice, a team of tech-passionate people. E.A.K has donated 60 accounts to the girls who attended the workshop.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has also been leading intensive youth education and training programs, including teaching coding and programming languages to young refugees.“We train youth on the basics of ICT and how to use computers, including certified International Computer Driving License (ICDL) and web design courses,” said Emma Bonar, NRC’s Youth specialist in Jordan. “In addition, we use technology as a modality of training through blended learning offering a multitude of courses from health or science to language and typing skills.”

What did they learn?

During the Refugee Code Week held in 2016 and 2017, youngsters aged between 8-17 years, learned Scratch coding, which is a free application developed by the MIT Media Lab to simplify the face of coding for the young generation. More than 15 million projects have been shared to date on www.scratch.mit.edu, said Husseini. While 18-24-year-old participants learned web programming through a master class introduction to web technologies (HTML, CSS, Javascript, PHP, SQL), with teaching on how to create a fully operational, mobile-friendly website. EAK’s workshop in Homs has helped girls get more excited about the programming world. “We taught them HTML fundamentals and start scripting a basic website showing their name. In the end, we played the E.A.K Game together to put what we had learned into their Game,” said Fadi Ashy member of the IT advice team.According to Bonar, youth are motivated, ambitious, and eager to learn. They love technology and the opportunities it opens up. “We should be careful not to assume that one specific IT related skills or solution (e.g. coding) is a silver bullet answer for all youth. Rather, it is one of a multitude of options youth may have an interest in pursuing and which may lead to further opportunities to use the skill thereafter,” she noted.

Training young refugees and educating them will secure them a better future (Image via SAP).

Employment opportunities

It is true that providing youngsters with the necessary academic background is very crucial to their futures and what’s more important is to teach them the practical skills companies require, so refugees don’t miss out on what they’ve learned. 

On a more practical level, SAP’s Husseini explained that the most promising master class students have the opportunity to join a 16-week-long coding bootcamp, where they would emerge as top entry level computer engineers ready for employment locally, regionally, and internationally. “To date, more than 75 participants have found employment, with an average salary of $1,100 per month. Bootcamps are currently offered in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq through our key partners ReBootKamp (RBK) and Re:Coded,” Husseini added. She explained that RBK sings up several major hiring partners. “...And because we are using a Silicon Valley (SV)-based curriculum to produce engineers versed in SV best practices, we are attracting the SV industry. They are relying heavily on RBK to produce their development talent.”

NRC also makes sure to secure jobs to its enrolled youngsters. “We support youth in acquiring skills, applying their skills, and then transitioning to work and life. This includes entrepreneurship and job matching for graduates in those sectors where the Jordanian Government permits the employment of Syrians. There are of course limitations to this given the high youth unemployment rate in Jordan and limited sectors in which Syrians can work. We also support youth in identifying opportunities to use their skills for social benefit within their communities,” Bonar explained.It is common sense that with crises come major challenges, especially on socio-economic levels.

Yet the lack of IT skills persists

According to Husseini, the major crisis they are facing translates into another concerning paradox: “On the one hand, you have refugee camps developing into permanent settlements where children do not have the opportunity for education and rates of child labor are increasing. On the other hand, you have amazing growth prospects for the Middle East and Africa region, which is the second-fastest growing market worldwide.” However, despite these growth prospects, “the global economy is facing an unprecedented shortage of ICT skills,” she said, and “equipping the young generation with the right set of skills and tools will be pivotal to translate such historic challenges into unprecedented growth opportunities,” Husseini concluded.

 

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