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Children learn key to coding success at classes in Belarus

Belarus. Coding classes for kids at innovative refugee tech project

Children learn key to coding success at classes in Belarus

IT firm's staff volunteer to teach refugees and local children to create interactive games and art.
6 July 2018
Refugees and local children create interactive games and art at EPAM's programming classes.

Nine-year-old Masha stares at a computer screen, absorbed in a racing game.

Unlike many parents, Svetlana is keen to encourage her, because not only is Masha playing this game – she created it.

Masha is one of more than 30 children who found refuge in Belarus and are now learning how to code thanks to the IT company EPAM Systems and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Every weekend, they come together with local children in the cities of Minsk and Gomel to create interactive games and art. This eKIDS programme is the company’s social responsibility initiative.

“Computers and programming are our future,” says 26-year-old Yura, Masha’s teacher in Minsk. “Some of these children are living in a different world, it’s really impressive. You can just imagine what they will do in the future.”

“We can give them a better future.”

About 70 EPAM staff members like Yura volunteer to teach some 300 children in the eKIDS programme. Among aspiring IT experts are youngsters who have fled upheaval in Ukraine, Afghanistan and beyond. Now, safe at last, the children have hope for the future and a chance to make friends.

“They already have complex lives,” Yura says. “We can give them a better future.”

Masha feels right at home in these classes, having been forced to flee her own in Donetsk, Ukraine, three years ago.

“We had just started achieving all our dreams,” says Svetlana. “We’d had three children, we’d bought our dream house. We’d started a garden and planted 50 trees. Then the conflict began. We would hear the fighting at night and I couldn’t sleep because of the worry. It was getting closer and closer.”

One evening, as the shells pounded the streets of home city Kramatorsk, Svetlana and family locked their door and boarded the night train. Belarus, the country next door, gave them the protection they needed.

“I think you have to appreciate your life here and now,” says Svetlana. “Nobody ever knows how it will be in future and we should be happy.”

It has not been easy for Svetlana to stay positive. Once a teacher, she now cleans equipment in a factory, after taking the first job she could find in Minsk. Her husband works for the local utilities board.

EPAM’s computer classes give the whole family a sense of belonging and hope.

"I have never seen my daughter like this.”

“Our family income is low,” says Svetlana. “We would not have been able to pay for these classes. As a mother, I am truly grateful for this opportunity, so is my daughter. She was so sad when the last semester was over.”

One of Masha’s classmates, seven-year-old David, also fled the conflict in Ukraine with his family. Like her, he loves the coding classes, although it takes him and his mother Kristina more than an hour’s travel on public transportation.

“It’s good for his development,” says Kristina. “It’s important, too, that it’s free for us. We heard that some people pay up to one hundred rubles (US$50) for these kinds of classes and that is a lot. It would be silly to deny him this opportunity.”

“Plus, there is free hot chocolate here!” says David, happily.

The coding classes are an example of how private partnerships can contribute to social cohesion, bring refugees and local children together.

“We are very glad to help bringing such opportunities and experiences for the children, especially to the children who had to escape their home countries to have a normal life," says Arkadiy Dobkin, the CEO and president of EPAM Systems. "We are also very thankful to UNHCR for the opportunity to partner with for such programs which bring joy and some level of happiness to those kids. EPAM plans in the future to continue the effort of expanding similar programs within our broader eKIDS initiative."

Masha loves the classes so much that she and Svetlana travel for up to two-and-a-half hours each way on three buses to get here. One weekend, when she was ill, she begged her mother to let her attend. “I’ll wear a mask!” she promised.

At last, the youngster is finding a new, happier life in Belarus.

“There is a new wave of something in her life,” says Svetlana. “She’s got a new perspective. She is now looking forward to weekends and her outlook is broadening. It’s drop by drop. I have never seen my daughter like this.”