This coding school is teaching Syrian refugees to hack integration

Where there’s a phone, there’s a way.
Where there’s a phone, there’s a way.
Image: EPA/Kay Nietfeld
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If you’re trying to learn German by watching The Walking Dead, subtitles aren’t the way to go, says Rami Rihawi, a 22-year-old refugee from Syria. Learning German by singing karaoke, on the other hand, he thinks has real potential.

“I learned English by watching movies and I’m trying to do the same here but it’s hard to find synchronized subtitles,” Rihawi tells Quartz. Rihawi studied informatics engineering at the University of Aleppo, and arrived in Germany in November. Now he’s looking for ways to turn German language learning into an educational karaoke app.

His breakthrough came out of a brainstorming session at Berlin’s newly-opened ReDi School of Digital Integration this weekend, Feb. 20. The School of Digital Integration is one of five computer programming centers in Germany and the Netherlands that teach refugees how to code. Its approach is two-fold: Students gain skills and contacts that can help them get jobs and internships at the end of their training. Coding also lets students create apps and websites that can become valuable resources for Europeans and refugees alike.

“Learning to code is really a way to solve problems,” said Anne Kjær Riechert, co-founder of ReDi. The name, pronounced ‘ready,’ is a play on the words ‘readiness’ and ‘digital integration.’

For the more than one million refugees now in Europe, getting their lives back on track means a lot of complicated problem solving: Looking up resources without access to a computer; traveling to asylum appointments that get cancelled or postponed at the last minute; and learning enough of a new language to attend university or gain employment, among other challenges.

Technical solutions to these and other questions have been springing up since the start of Europe’s refugee crisis. Many are apps that offer users information on border crossings, housing options and where to find counseling services, jobs and doctors. The German government itself recently launched Ankommen or ‘Arrive,’ a multi-language app that answers questions on the asylum process and offers introductory phrases in German. And while some refugees have created their own apps or contributed feedback to others’ efforts, technical initiatives have been largely spearheaded by European hackathons.

“There’s been a little too many, let’s call it ‘good-hearted, generous tech people’ coming together amongst themselves and trying to A) define the problem refugees are facing and B) developing it without user testing early enough,” said Riechert.

At ReDi’s brainstorming session last week, students came up with some of their own solutions to the growing pains of starting life in a new country. Chief among them was a seemingly never-ending amount of paperwork.

“How might we make German bureaucracy faster? Digital? Fun?” students and mentors wrote on a Post-It note. One of their answers: An educational video game that “makes the bureaucracy process actually fun,” according to a sketch of the prototype.

“If you have someone who can make your idea a reality then you can help, you can give to society,” said Louna Al-Bondahji, 22, to Quartz. Al-Bondahiji studied architecture and wants to use coding to create a website that connects architects with potential employers. “Through coding you can make everything a reality.”

ReDi’s 40 students join 60 other refugees learning how to code at Refugees on Rails, another initiative from Berlin with branches in Munich, Cologne, Amsterdam and Leipzig. Refugees on Rails co-founder Weston Hankins tells Quartz the school is looking to set up another branch in Zurich.

“The most valuable endeavor isn’t the end product they’re creating,” said Hankins of the students’ initial ideas. “It’s that we’re providing a groundwork and teaching them the tools so when the right time comes, people can see the solutions that they can’t see today and are prepared to act on them.”

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