LONDON – One by one the students walk down the staircase, lit by colorful hanging lightbulbs and decorated with abstract oil paintings, into the basement of one of London’s technology startups. As they take their seats and pull their laptops out of their bags, there is a palatable sense of relief in the room.
German Bencci, a Venezuelan-born engineer based in London, was inspired by the success of a similar program launched in Amsterdam called HackYourFuture, after which 13 out of 20 refugees found developer jobs, according to Gijs Corstens, one of the group’s founders.
The program aims to help refugees find employment, as well as giving refugees themselves the tools to work on technology projects that could help tackle the refugee crisis. It could also help enrich the technology sector, Bencci says.
“The tech industry is facing a huge challenge to find developers to fill the ever-increasing number of vacancies and, at the same time, to increase the diversity of their workforce to help serve their customers better,” he explains. “Training refugees to become developers represents a great opportunity to address both issues.”
Mindful of the tech sector’s efforts to encourage women to code, Bencci made sure 40 percent of the first group of students are female. “We want refugees to become role models in our society,” he said.
Bencci has been rallying the technology sector for support in recent months. He received donations of free office space from Cititec, a technology recruitment company, and recruited 10 volunteers – some of them refugees themselves – to be mentor developers.
The course was advertised on social media, and some students were referred by organizations such as the Helen Bamber Foundation, which supports trafficking and torture survivors. Applicants were not required to have any coding experience, but had to demonstrate intermediate English and complete a coding exercise before being accepted onto the course.
They meet for several hours every Sunday and are expected to work for between 20 and 30 hours each week on their assignments. At the end of the course, CodeYourFuture promises to do its best to place the students in full-time employment.
As the course began, London’s first cohort of refugee coding students reflected on their journeys from war and trafficking to London’s tech scene.
“I come from Aleppo in Syria. I think the city is quite well known now but not for very good reasons. I guess it’s a well-known city for anyone that follows the news. Since claiming asylum, I have been looking for work. Sadly my speciality area is English language teaching and so it’s not the best speciality to have here in the U.K. As we say in Arabic, it’s like selling water in a neighborhood of water providers. It’s just not the right thing to do! After the course, I hope to teach coding here in the U.K.”
“My name is Bridget, I come from Uganda. I am part of Room to Heal [a group that supports refugees who have survived torture and other forms of organized violence]. They put me in touch with the Helen Bamber Foundation, who suggested that I apply to this program and everything went from there. We had to create a webpage to get in. You needed to put a lot of work into it and look everything up yourself. I did mine on Albert Einstein.”
“I am from Damascus in Syria. I think everyone will be less shy once we get to know each other.”
“My life wasn’t safe in Afghanistan. I was living in a very difficult situation there. Many people wanted to harm me. I worked for the Ministry of the Economy and when they sent us on a course to Paris, I stayed. My brother is in the U.K. and he was very sick, so I needed to get to him. I ended up in Calais and stayed there for a month, then left for Dunkirk after the fifth day. I remember it was a rainy day. I managed to cross the border in a lorry and claimed asylum. This course will help me provide for me and my brother.”
“I’m Alaa but my friends call me Ali. I am from Damascus, Syria.”
“My name is Sentayhu and where I come from in Ethiopia it means ‘one who has seen a lot.’”