Coding classes open new doors for Syrian refugees

Refugee Code Week aims to train more than 10,000 people across the Middle East in much-needed IT skills.

Some of the coding sessions took place inside Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp [Dana Roesiger/Al Jazeera]
Some of the coding sessions took place inside Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp [Dana Roesiger/Al Jazeera]

Amman – Sitting in a large, airy room filled with colourful beanbags and tangles of computer wires, Moamer Swaida listens intently as an instructor explains the basics of web design. 

Swaida, 40, has not had a proper job since he left his position as a maths teacher in Deraa, Syria, and fled to northern Jordan four years ago. He hopes that this week’s classes at Amman’s King Hussein Business Park will finally change that.

“This will give me a better chance of finding work,” Swaida tells Al Jazeera in a soft voice. “Syrians cannot work in most jobs in Jordan, so this will allow me to freelance for foreign companies abroad.” 

Swaida is one of roughly one million Syrian refugees living in Jordan, all of whom are prohibited from working in white-collar jobs as local unemployment exceeds 14 percent. Even getting a work permit for manual labour can be difficult, although restrictions were eased somewhat this year.

The programme is designed to give participants a headstart in the rapidly evolving IT world [Dana Roesiger/Al Jazeera]

Some 80km away, amid a similar tangle of wires in the Zaatari refugee camp, 12-year-old Amnah drags red and blue blocks around her laptop screen in a visual representation of coding as she uses Scratch, a free programming platform. Despite never having tried coding before, she has taken to it instantly. 

“I find Scratch easy,” she says with a shrug. “Now I want to be a coding trainer when I’m older.”

This is the legacy being built by Refugee Code Week, an ambitious initiative aimed at training more than 10,000 refugees and locals across the Middle East in much-needed IT skills. The programme, which began on October 15, wraps up on Sunday. 

Spearheaded by German software company SAP, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and Ireland’s Galway Education Centre, the programme aims to tackle the unemployment that has accompanied the refugee crisis in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt by equipping participants with the type of technical know-how that is in increasingly high demand by employers. 

Information and communications technology (ICT) spending in the Middle East and Africa will reach $260bn this year, according to the American market research firm IDC, while a recent survey of MENA educators by Microsoft found that just 32 percent include digital literacy as part of their curricula.

“The region has an acute lack of skills in the ICT area, yet there is growth in the market,” Batoul Husseini, the corporate social responsibility manager for SAP MENA, tells Al Jazeera. “Bridging this skills gap is a great opportunity for those countries most affected by the refugee crisis.”

The week-long event is aimed largely at those aged eight to 24, and is open to both the Syrian refugee population – who number more than 4.5 million in the four participating countries – and local communities. The concept was built on the achievements of Africa Code Week, which last year gave nearly 90,000 young Africans across 17 countries the chance to learn to write code, or to touch a computer for the first time.

Students participate in a training session at Petra University [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]

In a sun-drenched classroom on the bustling campus of Amman’s Petra University, 20 or so students are engaged in a discussion. “What is the basis for the sprite’s movement?” asks instructor Kareem Bataineh, a Jordanian graduate now working with SAP. “How does it work?”

The term “sprite” refers to a two-dimensional graphical element of a programme, such as a game. The sprite referenced by Bataineh is an orange cat, the mascot for Scratch, the simplified coding platform developed by MIT for young learners. Much of the class revolves around figuring out the best way to explain the sprite’s inner workings to children.

One of those attending is Rana Masalameh, a 21-year-old information technology major. 

“Personally, I’m doing this so that I can help refugees learn to code in a way that’s fun,” she says with a grin, adjusting the aviator sunglasses resting atop her hijab. “I want to help society know more about IT. Not many people know about it yet, and it’s so interesting.”

Bataineh agrees: “These skills are so important for moving forward,” he tells Al Jazeera once the session is finished. “Kids these days will interact with machines on a whole new level, so they need these skills. It’s not just about computer sciences.

“The cool thing about this week is that it gives any kid the ability to leapfrog their situation because in the IT world, the requirements are minimal,” he adds. “You don’t even need the internet all the time – just a laptop and a programme.”

The programme blends vocational training with social integration for refugees [Dana Roesiger/Al Jazeera]

This leapfrog effect is already taking place, thanks to a 16-week pilot coding camp held in Jordan earlier this year as a forerunner to Refugee Code Week. Run by ReBootKamp, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit specialising in education, it provided around 15 refugees and 15 Jordanians with intensive training. Nearly all got a job or an internship placement at the end. The top 90 participants, aged 18 to 24, at the end of this week will get the same opportunity.

“It was the greatest experience I ever had,” says Fatima Hammam, a 26-year-old from Aleppo who attended ReBootKamp. She spent four years studying computer engineering and was one year away from graduating when she fled with her family to Amman. “I was sitting at home doing nothing when I read about it on Facebook. I instantly applied.”

Hammam has since secured a job as a curriculum facilitator for the camp and will be overseeing the next cohort of camp coders. 

This week is important, because it demonstrates clearly that the presence of refugees is not a disadvantage, but rather presents an opportunity.

Gavin White, external relations officer with UNHCR

“This project is connecting people of different nationalities,” she explains. “We have all become more open with each other. I used to be afraid of Jordanians, to be honest, and I didn’t have any Jordanian friends. Now I have some, plus a few from Iraq and Yemen, too.”

This combination of vocational training and social integration provides a win-win, says Gavin White, an external relations officer with UNHCR.

“I met them [the first boot camp participants] after they graduated, and you could see that not only had the Jordanians become close friends with the Syrians in their group, but they also clearly had a good understanding of the background for their life stories and experiences,” he tells Al Jazeera. 

“They’re not just learning coding but also team-building skills … This week is important, because it demonstrates clearly that the presence of refugees is not a disadvantage, but rather presents an opportunity.”

‘It was the greatest experience I ever had,’ says Syrian refugee Fatima Hammam [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


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