Coding in a refugee camp

Learning how to code gives young refugee woman a chance for a brighter future

 

Henriette Kiwele Kiyambi, age 21 from the DRC works on her Natural Beauty app at the App Factory in Dzeleka refugee camp in Malawi. She developed the app after noticing that many camp residents were asking for advice on how to make their skin look good and how to apply make up.   © UNHCR/Tina Ghelli

Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi -  It was the summer of 2013, when then 18 year old Henriette Kiwele and her two younger sisters were heading back home from their boarding school in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the school holiday.  They were looking forward to being reunited with their parents and having a nice home cooked meal.  But as the teenagers got closer to their village, they realized something terrible had happened.

A neighbor saw them heading toward their village and warned them not to continue home as there had been fighting and unrest. He told them that their house had been burned down and he wasn’t sure what happened to her parents.

Kiwele and her sisters, Claudine and Josephine had no choice but to join him and their other neighbors fleeing the area.  Tragically they got caught up in the violence and ended up being held captive for almost two years by an insurgent group in the DRC.  Another captive, known to the girls as Papa James, managed to help them escape.  He had seen how his own daughter had been treated by the rebels and he didn’t want that to happen to them.

After an arduous and traumatic journey, the three sisters arrived in Malawi together with some other refugees. They soon encountered a police patrol who took them to immigration.

“We were so scared they were going to arrest us or send us back, but that’s not what happened. They listened to our story of how we fled.  The officials told us they would ask UNHCR to assist us and bring us to the refugee camp,” says Kiwele.

Upon arriving in Dzaleka refugee camp, Kiwele and her sisters were given kitchen sets, blankets, mats, and food.  After a brief stay in the reception center, the girls were also assisted with a house to live in.

“I felt so relieved. I told my sisters, we aren’t going to suffer anymore, we are going to be okay,” says Kiwele.

After they managed to get settled in the camp, Kiwele wanted to continue with her education. She never finished her high school diploma before she had to flee. She tried to identify some place where she could still pursue education in the camp.

When she heard from some friends in the camp that UNHCR partner, Jesuit Refugee Services were looking for girls who were interested in learning computers at Takeno Lab, a small school started by another refugee in the camp. She and her sisters decided to join right away.

“There were mostly boys in the group, and we were asked if we would be able to keep up with them, and we said yes, of course we can,” says Kiwele.

The three coding sisters - Claudette, age 18, Henriette age 21 and Josephine, age 17 arrived in Malawi in 2016 after fleeing conflict in the DRC. Separated from their parents and other three siblings, they live together in the camp. Together they joined the App Factory established in Dzeleka refugee camp by Microsoft in partnership with UNHCR when it opened in June 2017 in order to learn how to code. They have been working with other young people at the App Factory to develop apps that can help communications with the residents of Dzaleka refugee camp.   © UNHCR/Tina Ghelli

Henriette and her sisters started learning about programming. They learned programming languages such as Java, C#, and Xamarin Forms.

“It was very hard at first. You need to really concentrate, but the teacher encouraged us to ask questions and helped us gain the knowledge we needed to learn how to code,” says Kiwele.

In June 2017, Microsoft in partnership with UNHCR opened the App Factory in Dzaleka refugee camp as part of the Refugee Connectivity project. Kiwele and her sisters applied for admission, and were accepted into the programme.

“Takeno Lab gave us the foundation and the App Factory accelerated our knowledge,” says Kiwele.

Kiwele immediately began developing her own App, called the Natural Beauty App.

“I would see people in the camp that had some skin problems and I knew some home remedies using lemons or other natural products to improve it, so I thought this kind of App could help people with this advice,” says Kiwele.

"You can be Mark Zuckerberg too, if you have enough courage."

Kiwele notes that some of the young women who started in the original computer learning group have left to get married and have children.

“There is a lot of pressure on teenage girls in the camp to just get married and have babies, but I don’t see that for myself. Our teacher would tell us, just because you are a refugee, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You have this opportunity so you should take it, so that made me think I shouldn’t give up, even when it gets hard.” says Kiwele.

Burundian refugee Remy Gakwaya, founder of Takeno Lab and instructor at the App Factory smiles when asked about this statement and confirms that he tries to do what he can to encourage them. 

“I tell them you can be Mark Zuckerberg too, if you have enough courage,” says Gakwaya.

The App Factory has been open for almost a year, and while currently there are challenges with connectivity it has given a lot of hope to the refugee youth in Dzaleka camp.

“Young people who have grown up in the refugee camp face an uncertain future. With such outstanding initiatives from private sector donors like Microsoft  who have supported  this  project, we can help young people realize their  potential and hopefully give them opportunities that would otherwise  be inaccessible,” says Monique Ekoko, UNHCR’s Representative in Malawi.

“When I think of the future, I think one day I will be able to have a career based on the knowledge I am getting here at the App Factory. I don’t want to suffer again like I did in the past. I hope one day I will get a job in tech.” says Kiwele.

Located in the central region district of Dowa in Malawi some 35 kilometres from Lilongwe, Dzaleka refugee camp is home to some 34,000 refugees and asylum seekers mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Somalia among others.