Three years ago, Abdul Rahman Mhimid Dbis was your typical 19 year old. In his second year studying IT at a university, he also dabbled in blogging about cybersecurity and privacy. Home for Dbis was Hamah, where he had friends and a social life. By all accounts, his life was on track.
But Dbis is Syrian, and at some point in early 2015, his life and any semblance of normalcy became threatened by the civil war wracking his birth country. So, like the 65 million other people who fled their homes to escape conflict and persecution last year, Dbis left his. Eventually, he found his way to the Netherlands, in search of asylum and a new life. Yet for refugees like Dbis, getting to Europe is just half the battle. Once here, they face a unique set of hurdles that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to entering the job market.
Gijs Corstens, a politically-active Dutch entrepreneur, is all too aware of the staggering odds. Noticing the influx of refugees, Corstens did some research and discovered shocking statistics. According to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, only a quarter of asylum migrants have a paid job after 2 years, with fewer than 50% finding work within 10 years.
“I thought about what would worry me the most if I was in their shoes? To me, if you can’t work then all you can do is stand on the sidelines and watch as society passes you by,” says Corstens, who has spent time as both a venture capitalist and startup founder. “Most of the incoming refugees have worked all their lives, and suddenly they have nothing to do but sit around in camps. That’s hard for them, not being to contribute back to this new country. So that was what I saw as the core problem.”
Corstens founded Hack Your Future in 2016, a coding school that trains refugees to become software developers. The program is a direct result of what Corstens saw as a solution to a two-pronged problem.
“There’s a need for skilled developers in Europe and here we have this group of people with the desire to learn,” says Corstens, who got into programming after picking it up on the side. “I had a thesis and so we decided to just put a bunch of volunteer developers and refugees in a room and test what happened.”
The program eventually developed into a 6 month program structured around the freeCodeCamp values. Corstens and his team promote the program through Facebook groups like Refugee Start Force, which attempts to bridge the gap between Dutch citizens and incoming refugees. Selection criteria include the ability to speak English — the medium of instruction for all classes — and the aptitude to pass several entry-level coding tests. Applicants range in age and educational background, with some possessing law and electrical engineering degrees, while others have yet to finish high school.
The school has since accepted over 100 students into the program. They are almost always men, mostly of Syrian descent, the demographic most targeted in their native homelands and most likely to survive the journey to Europe.
Women rarely apply for the program. Corstens suspects that female refugees in Amsterdam, most of whom tend to be from Eritirea and Somalia, likely do not see themselves as techies, a stereotype he is actively trying to fight.
“If someone’s hungry to learn and you connect them with people who are passionate about what you do, there’s this great energy you create. We see people grow really rapidly,” says Corstens. “There’s also a sense of fulfillment for the teachers, who get have direct impact."
“Our goal is to gather people around a love for coding instead of a Dutch person meeting a refugee.”
A little over a year of arriving in Amsterdam, Dbis has passed through Ter Appel, the country’s largest refugee processing center, been granted asylum, taken Dutch classes at the Amsterdam University College and is currently enrolled at Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA). But perhaps his biggest accomplishment is graduating from Hack Your Future, where he now also volunteers his time as an instructor.
Other graduates of the program have gone on to find internships and jobs at startups like Owlin or multi-nationals like KPMG, KLM and Accenture. Says Corstens:
“Going through a program like Hack Your Future helps them rethink who they are and who they can be. Instead of being refugees, they are now software developers.”
Words by Asha Indralingam
Pictures by Richard Rigby