Coding for the future

Jordan has an increasingly strong technology sector. An advanced digital infrastructure, high internet penetration, growing start up culture and a young and educated force are all contributing factors but how can refugees also play a part.

Jordan has an increasingly strong technology sector. An advanced digital infrastructure, high internet penetration, growing start up culture and a young and educated force are all contributing factors.

For young people graduating from high school and university, the technology sector could offer up a wealth of opportunities. Combined with the fact that unemployment for under 30’s currently stands at around 40 percent, the potential for future generations is huge.

But for both Jordanians and refugees alike, they need the skills to succeed.

“Everything coming in the world is technology related. I want to be a part of this generation who can bring change to the world. For me, you have to know coding in order to do this.”

Mohammad, 17, a refugee living in Zaatari Camp is one of the participants in the coding school program run out of Al-Bayt University in Mafraq © UNHCR Jordan

Mohammed, 17, is among the first cohort of an innovative coding school based out of Al-Bayt University which has recently started through a collaboration between UNHCR and CHAMS, an international NGO supporting coding schools and employment for refugees and underserved communities through a network of European startups.

Open to both refugees and Jordanians, after a competitive selection process, thirty students began their seventh month course earlier in July. Now, almost half way through their studies, Bashar, the lead technical trainer comments that the students are making good progress.

“I think the students certainly found it a challenge at the start. They weren’t used to this form of active learning. It’s not a simple lecture approach with an exam at the end but involves a lot of individual participation, for the students to engage with and motivate themselves through the various projects.

“But I have seen a change in them. One student now tells me he dreams in code.”

Refugee and Jordanian students gather in a classroom to learn coding skills in Northern Jordan © UNHCR Jordan

As the youngest student in the class, being a part of the coding school has been a life changing experience for Mohammad who lives in Zaatari refugee camp after fleeing their home in Daraa seven years ago.

“I have been obsessed with computers and how things work since I was a child. I have been trying to learn code for the last couple of years by myself but this has been a big step forward.”

Surprised when he found out he had been selected for the course, as he knew he was below the target age range, Mohammad is one of the students Bashar says shows a natural talent for coding.

“Students come from a diverse background, those as young as 16 and old as 39. There are medical graduates, some who have taken computer science classes before and other who only have a high school certificate but that is the beauty of it. My job is to give them the basic tools to allow them to build things as big as the Burj Khalifa.”

The mix of Jordanians and Syrian refugees is also one of the main attractions of the course. Coming from the local town of Mafraq as well as Zaatari refugee camp, students get a stipend of 120 dinar a month to cover costs such as transportation to university, food and academic materials and there are plans to roll our similar programs in Amman in the future.

The coding class caters for a diverse range of students, aged between 17 and 39, male, female, Jordanian and Syrian © UNHCR Jordan

Hanna, 19, is another one of the students from Zaatari Camp. Like Mohammad she has been in Jordan for seven years after fleeing her home in Daraa, Syria. A recent Tawjihi graduate, for the last year she has been taking various computer based and coding classes in the camp before she got accepted onto this program.

“Coding was never really something I was interested in until a couple of years ago. But now I realize its importance. I got introduced to it through a basic course at one of the community centers in the camp but here its great to have the opportunity to study at an actual university. Studying alongside Jordanian students is also great. I’ve made lots of friends and we always have interesting discussions.”

Designed to strengthen the students future economic opportunities, the final step of the course will be made up of a 6 to 12 month paid internship with a private sector company in Jordan or remotely with a company of the CHAMS’ network.

Antoine Meunier, one of the founders of CHAMS, explains why this is a key feature of the program

“Our mission is to create highly employable tech talent and inspired entrepreneurs in refugee areas, to boost local economic development. We want our students to refine their learning through real projects in real business conditions. We want them to be fully prepared to assume positions in tech project teams, as fast as possible. For this nothing is better than the reality check of an intense internship, in a real business, on a real project.”

In addition, Antoine Meunier explains: “it’s not a coding bootcamp, we’re delivering an innovative coding curriculum from 8 months to 2 years that is needed by the international tech job market”.

All students currently part of the coding school have high ambitions of creating change working within the technology sector once they graduate © UNHCR Jordan

For the refugee students, however, getting a permanent job in the Jordanian technology sector is more difficult as it remains a closed sector for refugee employment. That’s why CHAMS is developing an employment network, allowing refugees to candidate to remote positions in European startups and corporations. CHAMS is also providing it’s help to refugees entrepreneurship projects, as a refugee can legally work if he founds a company with a Jordanian associate. Obviously some students are already thinking to create their own company, in mixed Jordanian and Syrian teams. However, the skills and knowledge gained through the program will be of value throughout the rest of their lives.

Hanna, in particular, has grand ambitions of sharing her newly found coding talent with the refugee community back in Zaatari.

“I want to use these skills to help other young people in Zaatari. To teach them how to code and also set up a website which acts as a hub of news in the camp. I want to create a central hub where people can go to find out news, information and signup for activities that are available at the community centers through their phone.

“Technology is now the world. It needs to be accessible for everyone.”