Refugees are Redefining the Future of Work in Glasgow

We spoke to the young Sudanese developer setting up a coding school for refugees in the UK.

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Apr 26 2017, 4:15pm

Saturday morning is usually a time reserved for curing hangovers and overthinking life. But in an art studio in Glasgow, 14 refugees from Syria to Yemen started their first day of a six-month intensive coding program. On the curriculum are universal languages: HTML, JavaScript, Angular and Node.

The course is run by Mozafar Haider, a young Sudanese-born, Scotland-based developer who was inspired by the success of CodeYourFuture (CYF) launched in London in October. CYF is the UK's first coding school exclusively set up to teach refugees to code. Its first batch of students graduated just last week and already two-thirds have secured interviews, according to German Bencci, the group's founder.

A volunteer mentor on the program in London, Mozafar moved to Edinburgh in January and immediately starting rallying colleagues in Scotland to start their own CYF course. He received donations of free office space from Many Studios, recruited mentors – some of them refugees themselves – working for firms including SkyScanner, Tesco Bank, FanDuel, as well as graduates of Edinburgh-based digital skills academy CodeClan.

He advertised on social media, and some students were also referred by organizations such as the Unity Centre, which supports asylum seekers and those detained in UK Detention Centres; Refuweegee, a community-led charity that makes sure refugees arriving are "welcomed to the city in true Glaswegian style;" the Scottish Refugee Network; Clyde College; and even the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, which supports trafficking and torture survivors.

Applicants were not required to have any coding experience, but had to demonstrate intermediate English and complete an online coding exercise on Free Code Camp by designing their own webpage about topics they were passionate about, from Somali food to Nelson Mandela to Albert Einstein.

On the eve of the course's launch, VICE Impact spoke to Mozafar, who reflected on his students journey to Scotland's tech scene and why these no-cost, volunteer-run schools are providing a critical lifeline for asylum-seekers and refugees

VICE Impact: What's your background?
Mozafar Haider: I'm from Sudan and studied coding in Cairo. I've been a programmer for 10 years.

It's one of the few jobs where there is a level playing field between someone in the US and Sudan, for example. It's one of the most democratic skills you can have. If you're good at coding, you're good at coding. I studied in a university no one knows about, but no one cares because I'm good at coding.

How did you get involved with CYF?
I first got involved with the London team as a mentor. I told German [CYF founder], that this was really personal for me. I needed it. Last year was a really horrible year. I didn't feel welcome because of all the ring-wing media. I began to feel attacked personally.

To be honest, for all of us that aren't right-wing, last year felt horrible. But I didn't just want to watch it all happen. I wanted to do something, I wanted to be proactive. So I began to mentor students on the course.

Where have your students fled from?
It's a very diverse group. They're from Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopian, Kenya, Palestine, Myanmar, Honduras and Mexico. Their backgrounds, why they are here, where they're at with their asylum-cases -- all of it is very diverse.

One of the things we really wanted though was to have a gender-balanced class, but we struggled. We tried so hard because it's a general problem in tech, there just aren't enough women.

But there are more refugee and asylum seekers that are men, so the numbers weren't on our side. And we struggle to find childcare for the mothers. We have a Somali student who has two children and we're currently looking to find someone to look after her children on Saturdays.

You're not funded and the course is free. How do you do it?
I knew from experience in Sudan that a lot of projects lose that initial enthusiasm when money gets involved. We don't have money but we don't need it. We find solutions for specific problems.

For example, someone is sponsoring the travel of one of the students who needs to come in from out of town. We were offered space by an Art Studio in Glasgow and I found loads of volunteers through Meetup.com.

We don't waste funds in logistics – unlike other bigger organisations.

So you've received a lot of support?
Everyone we've spoken to in Scotland ended up offering us more than we'd asked. My first week here, I went to CodeClan [a paid coding school] to ask whether they had any volunteers that would be free to teach, and they ended up giving us a space too. Everyone has been really helpful. In fact, we now have more than 35 people who have offered to teach and volunteer in Glasgow.

You've gotten a lot of support, but you've also said the political atmosphere has felt very tense in the UK for refugees?
We had this article published about our work in the Scottish press and many comments at the bottom just said "You're just bringing more terrorists to the country", and other obnoxious remarks. But on that same day, we received 14 course books from people we didn't know. Some even included little notes, saying "Welcome to Scotland"..

There is more goodwill and more people that are open than not.

Some on your course are asylum seekers waiting to get official refugee status.
We have about five in our class still going through the process of getting their papers. t's such a hectic process. It's very draining, but they still want to start their life. It's too easy to end up in a negative spiral.

I know from my experience that you start off so enthusiastic, but after three years fighting you feel so deflated. However, you don't go back to where you came from. You escape places like Sudan for a reason. You're not going to leave, but that energy -- wanting to contribute, wanting to stand on your own two-feet -- gets drained out of you by the long asylum process

Nearly two-thirds of the London graduates are close to getting a job, that's good right?
Yes it is, but our success criteria is not only based on how many of our graduate get jobs. The social aspect is so important too. To be part of a group is not a tangible thing, but it's very important. t's more important than getting a job sometimes.

For example, an Afghani guy that did the course in London didn't speak much English. Now he speaks English. It's a very good side affect of doing this course. You become part of a community of people that are passionate about the same thing and that's important.

You also want to support low-income locals to also get access to free coding classes?
When we have enough graduates, we'll start start teaching Scottish people who might not be able to get onto free University courses and are unable to pay for private ones. It's a way for us to be involved and for the local community to see that we're not bad. We want to challenge stereotypes.

If you'd like to support CodeYourFuture (childcare, space, laptops) get in touch: scotland@codeyourfuture.co.

This interview has been condensed and edited.