These Refugees Are Coding Their Way to New Lives in Europe

A look at new development academies popping up around the continent.
Eyas Taha at the Integrify office in Helsinki. Taha participated in the first Integrify project and has already landed a job.

Eyas Taha sits in a closet-size office at Nord Software in Helsinki, watching lines of code cascade down his monitor, text drifting like snow. Snow. Taha had never seen the stuff until he fled the violence of his native Iraq and arrived in Finland in the autumn of 2015. But he saw plenty of it during a long winter at a prison-turned-refugee-camp on the Russian border. Many times, there’d been little to do but stare out the window and watch it fall. “We had to wait for interviews with the police and for fingerprints,” he says. “Most of the time we just sat in our rooms and waited.”

Before arriving in Finland, Taha, 22, had never coded either. And he might have succumbed to the despair that afflicts many refugees had he not been plucked from a refugee camp by Integrify, a coding academy started last year by a pair of Finnish tech entrepreneurs who wanted to help asylum-seekers integrate more speedily into European society. Integrify brought Taha to Helsinki, where he lived in an apartment with other refugees and learned to code.

With Brexit laying bare the anti-immigrant passions coursing through Europe, governments are under pressure to integrate refugees from the war-torn Middle East into the economy and society. While the flow of arrivals has slowed, asylum-seekers continue to stream in. Some 18,000 arrived by sea in the first three weeks of June, adding to the 224,000 who’ve made the crossing so far this year and the more than 1 million who arrived in 2015. Europe will need to create hundreds of thousands of jobs to assimilate these refugees—even if many eventually return to Syria and Iraq should peace return to the region. Hundreds of thousands are likely to settle permanently in Europe.

Daniel Rahman of Integrify
Daniel Rahman (left), who co-founded Integrify, works in the backroom of the office.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki for Bloomberg

Integrify is one of several refugee coding academies that have sprung up across the continent. Meanwhile, big tech companies, eager to burnish their public profiles at a time of increasing regulatory scrutiny in Europe and under pressure from their own employees to help, have chipped in with money and engineering talent. Google engineers have built temporary cell phone towers and mobile phone charging stations for refugee camps; the company has gifted 25,000 Chromebooks to charities helping migrants. Oracle helped modernize Germany’s asylum application system, swamped by the 800,000 people who arrived last year. Ericsson is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a mobile wallet for refugees to use when they can’t access normal financial services. The startup community has pitched in too. Techfugees, a group that has tried to coordinate the tech community’s response to the refugee crisis globally, has held conferences and hackathons where the digerati seek to develop apps or cobble together hardware to help refugees and the charities aiding them.

Aiding refugees with immediate needs—helping them get online or access government services—is relatively easy. Integrating them into European society will take much longer and is more fraught. Daniel Rahman, who runs a Helsinki staffing firm called TechConnect, co-founded Integrify after touring refugee centers and seeing how governments haplessly retard assimilation. In the winter of 2015, Finland was straining to absorb 30,000 refugees. With migrant centers full and spilling over, refugees ended up living in tents even as temperatures dipped below zero. Many were placed in remote, rural regions—exacerbating their isolation. Some Iraqi refugees became so disillusioned, they asked to be sent back to their war-ravaged homeland. “People get very discouraged and demotivated,” Rahman says. 

Integrify was designed to stave off depression by housing refugees in a city and teaching them a valuable skill. The program is competitive—selecting just a handful of students from a large applicant pool through an online assessment and an in-person interview. The students are chosen for their English proficiency, previous experience with computers, and a willingness to devote long hours to learning coding. They are given laptops and also have access to desktop machines at the offices of Nord Software, a web services company, where a former supply room has been turned into a makeshift classroom. Here the students work eight-hour days, five days a week for three months, learning how to code with modern programming languages. Developers from Nord help teach the classes, but most of the learning is done with online modules and practice coding exercises, with the students completing homework on their laptops at their housing center in the evenings. “We want to reimagine the refugee center as a software development center,” says Niklas Lahti, who co-founded Integrify and runs Nord Software. “You could come to one of our places where you live, but you also do coding.”

Munzer Khattab, a Syrian refugee coder
Munzer Khattab, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee who took part in the first ReDI program, in Berlin.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki for Bloomberg

Munzer Khattab, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, stumbled on a similar coding academy in Berlin. Having reached the German capital after an arduous Mediterranean crossing in an inflatable raft and a five-day stay in a Hungarian jail, Khattab was shuffled between temporary hotel lodgings and found himself aimlessly wandering the city. He’d always wanted to study computer science but didn’t have the grades. Then a friend told him about the ReDI School of Digital Integration, started in late 2015 by a 33-year-old Dane named Anne Riechert. Like Integrify, the program is competitive, picking 42 students for its first cohort last spring from a pool of 72 applicants based on their English skills and desire to learn. (They have to submit a letter explaining why they wish to become coders.) The students are divided into two distinct tracks depending on whether they have previous coding experience. Groups of six students are paired with a volunteer from a German tech company who acts as a mentor, and the students attend classes on Sunday afternoons and two evenings per week. The program has attracted the interest of Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, who, along with his wife, Priscilla, visited ReDI in Berlin in February. In a post on his own Facebook page, Zuckerberg later called the experience “one of the highlights of my visit to Germany” and wrote that the refugees impressed him “by their courage and determination.”

A social entrepreneur who has run workshops around the world focused on children’s aspirations for the future, Riechert sees paid work as an essential prerequisite for integration. Refugees need income to move out of government-funded shelters and live independently. But even well-qualified developers may struggle to gain a toehold in the job market, she says. In Germany, she says, many tech companies were willing to offer unpaid internships to people, but were reluctant to consider them for paid positions even though asylum-seekers can work in Germany once approved. “I hope we see a shift because these are talented people,” she says. Khattab says ReDI has changed his life trajectory. “Doing this school is a big thing for me,” he says. “I am building a new life right now.” He has learned ruby on rails and html5, both popular computer languages. And he’s already been offered two unpaid internships with Berlin startups.

Just giving people a place to go during the day and something productive to do can help with assimilation, says Weston Hankins, a tech entrepreneur who founded Refugees on Rails, a program designed to teach coding to refugees in Berlin that started last year and has now expanded to four other German cities. In many ways, the coding is almost incidental to Refugees on Rails’ real purpose. “This is really about building community and friendships, and learning some programming and some skills is really an excuse to bring these people together,” Hankins says.

The volunteer-run program provides refugees with a laptop and three months of coding instruction, two nights per week, for three hours each session. The classes are held in space donated by local tech companies, including the Berlin offices of Amazon.com. The course is open to refugees with rudimentary computing experience; “they have to know what a mouse is and what a desktop is,” Hankins says. So far about 50 refugees have gone through the program in its first two cohorts, and 120 are currently signed up. “At the end of the three months they should understand what is behind a website and how to build basic pages and how to save data and create a website that is interactive,” he says.

Anne Kjaer Riechert
Anne Kjaer Riechert poses for a portrait before a meeting to discuss the future of ReDI School of Digital Integration at the Facebook office at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. On the right: her notebook during the meeting.
Photographer: Loulou d'Aki for Bloomberg

The tech industry has long had an overdeveloped sense of what it can accomplish. The efforts by Google, Oracle, and other big companies are focused mostly on helping European countries handle the migrant influx rather than helping refugees assimilate. The founders of the new coding academies acknowledge they, too, can do only so much. Lahti accepts that many refugees aren’t interested in coding or lack the English-language skills and computer background to qualify for Integrify’s course. He and Rahman interviewed and tested dozens of people at refugee centers throughout Finland before selecting just five for their pilot program. Rahman and Lahti plan to offer their courses to 100 new refugees in the coming weeks, but there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe. The coding students are overwhelmingly twentysomething men. Women and older people aren’t signing up.

Still, Riechert’s and Lahti’s efforts have had an undeniable impact on individual lives. Taha, the Iraqi refugee, has been offered a paid job by Biddl Oy, a Helsinki startup focused on bringing game-like elements to mobile shopping. That’s a real accomplishment for someone who lost both parents—his mother to cancer and his father to a terrorist attack—as well as a brother to a sectarian kidnapping. Packed into a fishing boat with 250 other migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Egypt, a journey that wound up taking eight days, Taha often wondered if he would drown or starve before reaching Europe. “It is a big change from the terrible things that happened in my life,” he says, reflecting on his new life as a coder. “To have peace of mind and not feel threatened by anything. Plus, I am not just wasting time. Now I am actually doing something.”

(Corrects to change the word “assimilation” to “integration” in the eighth paragraph.)