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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Startup Teaches Coding Skills to Refugees in the Netherlands


Having to flee a war-torn country is agonizing. Learning how to adapt to a new country can be even harder, but learning new skills that can lead to a good job often helps to ease the transition.

Europe has experienced a refugee crisis since 2015 as millions arrived from Africa and the Middle East. In the Netherlands, asylum-seekers often lingered in refugee camps for up to 18 months awaiting a decision on their applications. Refugees “basically have nothing to do” while they wait, Gijs Corstens, the founder of HackYourFuture, a refugee coding school in the Netherlands and Denmark, wrote on Medium this month.

Corstens saw this waiting time as “an enormous wasted opportunity” because refugees need to learn the language of their adopted country and prepare themselves to gain employment. Only one in three 15- to 64-year-old refugees living in the Netherlands with residence permits have a paid job. Many are permanently dependent on welfare, according to a recent report from the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy. And as the council put it, “This represents a waste of human capital and places an unnecessary strain on the country’s welfare system.”

HackYourFuture is Corstens' vision to help refugees learn a valuable skill. In the beginning, “five highly-motivated refugees from refugee camps camps across the country” were selected and invited to attend classes on Sundays in Amsterdam. Volunteer teachers were used to teach the classes with freeCodeCamp used as the curriculum. After six months, HackYourFuture’s first group of students graduated and “we used our network to help them find internships and jobs at various companies,” Corstens wrote.

Since January 2016, HackYourFuture has accepted more than 100 students. Half of them are still studying with the program, and 28 graduates found jobs or internships at companies all over the Netherlands. The company now runs a HackYourFuture program in Copenhagen and one in London called CodeYourFuture. And many of the students have “stopped identifying themselves as refugees and started to see themselves as developers,” Corstens said.

Corstens cites the example of a Syrian student named Sarea who lived in refugee camps since October 2015. Sarea left “everything behind,” including his job and his wife. His English skills were “very poor” when he started HackYourFuture, but he kept up with the program “by just working incredibly hard.” After he finished the program, he got an internship at De Bijenkorf, which Corstens describes as a front-end developer. Sarea also developed a web app that gives poor people in Amsterdam information about support organizations. His app was featured in two major newspapers, and thousands of people use it every month.

Here in the U.S., Cotopaxi, Adobe and the Utah Refugee Services Office developed aa similar program in Utah. The volunteer initiative provides weekly code trainings in partnership with the Bhutanese community in Salt Lake City. In 2016, the Refugee Coding Project was expanded to include the Sudanese, Burmese, Congolese and Burundian communities. Every week, computer science courses are provided to around 50 refugee students who are guided through a 20-week accelerated course by Code.org.

The Refugee Coding Project is not the only program that teaches refugees in the U.S. how to code. The Pi515 program is housed in Zion Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, where refugees take courses in computer programming. Short for Pursuit of Innovation and the local area code, the program launched in 2014.

Teaching refugees how to code is a great way to give them skills that will lead to good paying jobs. Or as Corstens says, “I believe teaching someone to program is one of the most valuable gifts you can give, because you enable someone to help themselves and become independent of other people.”

Perhaps HackYourFuture and other projects like it can serve as a new model for helping refugees transition to life in their adopted countries.

Image credit: HackYourFuture

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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