Refugees Compete to Code Their Way to Prosperity

If selected for the program, they’ll be trained to work for major tech companies.

Applicants for the Re:Coded program receive instructions for computer logic testing at Qushtapa camp in Iraqi Kurdistan on June 12. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

Jun 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Campbell MacDiarmid is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. He has covered the Middle East for Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, Maclean's Magazine and other publications.

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan—The dust-swept Qushtapa camp in northern Iraq offers shelter to Syrian refugees but few employment or educational opportunities. So when residents heard of a program promising to turn them into employed computer programmers within eight months, they queued up to apply.

Inside prefabricated cabins on Sunday, 50 of the camp’s residents hunched over laptops to complete Re:Coded’s pretest for entry into a training program that teaches them how to connect and work remotely as computer coders. It’s a fresh twist on outsourcing that could be an avenue to new lives for refugees displaced by war.

Using arrows and command symbols, test takers were asked to write instructions to guide a robot through a series of mazes. The exercise was designed to see how well they might grasp the fundamentals of computer programming.

“It’s like a game,” organizer Marcello Bonatto told them.

Sitting in the shade outside, Suleyman Khalid waited his turn. The 17-year-old Syrian has lived in Qushtapa camp since his family fled the fighting in his hometown of Hassakeh three years ago. With few work or education opportunities open to refugees, Khalid was desperate for a spot in the course. “It’s mainly about learning,” he said. “I have to study hard to build a better future for me so I can depend on myself.”

The course, which starts on July 17, will train 50 of northern Iraq’s most talented refugees to be world-class computer coders with remote working jobs within eight months. So far, more than 500 have applied.

Syrian refugee Suleyman Khalid, 17, helps another applicant with a computer logic puzzle during testing for the Re:Coded program at Qushtapa camp on June 12. (Photo: Campbell MacDiarmid)

Giving refugees the skills to work remotely will address the lack of opportunities for Iraqis and Syrians displaced by war while also addressing a global shortage of skilled Arabic-speaking computer programmers, said Re:Coded founder Ali Clare.

“The tech industry is growing so fast, for every software developer, there are five jobs,” Clare said. “It’s not just the tech industry. It’s the way companies are doing work in terms of outsourcing.”

The value of the global outsourcing market is estimated at $350 billion and is forecast to grow 60 percent over the next two years. “The opportunities for people who are displaced and unable to work in local communities is fascinating,” Clare said.

Iraqi Kurdistan is home to 250,000 Syrian refugees and more than 1 million Iraqis who have fled from areas controlled by the Islamic State. The cost of the war in Iraq has placed a huge financial burden on the region, with refugees and displaced Iraqis among the worst affected by the resulting financial crisis.

In addition to learning computer coding, the students will improve their English language proficiency and develop general workplace skills. Within the first two months of classes, they will be offered paid remote work with private sector partners, including Microsoft and freelance online marketplace portal Guru.

“This enables fellows to start earning an income early to support their families as well as building up their confidence,” Clare said. “On the client side, the main benefit is they can offer a great product for a low cost. They can undercut the India market by 25 percent and still offer people the opportunity to earn above-market wages in Iraq.”

Australian-born Clare founded Re:Coded at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs last year with funding from the United Nations Development Programme. The curriculum is based on the coding “boot camp” taught at New York’s Flatiron School. Re:Coded hopes to raise enough funds to build an innovation lab in Erbil.

With an estimated 50 million refugees worldwide, Clare believes the project is scalable. “Why are we not looking at refugees as skilled people who have the intellectual potential to fill skills gaps in markets globally?” she asked.

For hopeful applicant Khalid, the course promises a better future not just for him but for his country too.

“When the war is over, we want to go home and rebuild our country,” he said. “We don’t want to be ignorant.”