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Cracking the Code to Young Refugees’ Future

Feature Article | June 17, 2016 by Corinna Machmeier

SAP teams up with the UNHCR to provide coding courses for refugees in October. SAP employees are currently training teachers throughout the Middle East.

SAP colleague Mohammed Zakarni volunteers for Refugee Code Week and teaches basic and advanced coding skills.

SAP colleague Mohammed Zakarni volunteers for Refugee Code Week and teaches basic and advanced coding skills.

There’s one particular date that will remain indelibly etched in Mohammed Zakarni’s memory: August 2, 1990. That was the day Iraqi troops invaded and occupied his home country, Kuwait, triggering the Persian Gulf War. Mohammed was only 12 years old. Later that same year, he and his family were forced to flee to Jordan. For his father, who had already escaped from Palestine in 1961, it was a second exile.

Today, Mohammed lives in Saudi Arabia. A graduate from Harvard Business School, he has been working at SAP since 2010. But he has never forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee. “Finding work for people is one thing. But I want to look forward to a fundamentally brighter future. Education is extremely important. I see it as my personal challenge to find ways of passing on my expertise to others,” explains Mohammed. Which is why he’s taking part in Refugee Code Week as a Coding Instructor.

Announced at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), this initiative is SAP’s response to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s call for private sector support to help tackle the refugee crisis. The situation is so alarming that Amnesty International is now talking about the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with 19.5 million people classified as refugees worldwide and more than half under the age of 18.


From Basic Skills to Job Qualifications

  • Refugee Code Week will take place October 15 through 23, 2016 in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
  • Younger participants will learn on the MIT’s simplified coding platform Scratch.
  • Older participants will learn how to build a website with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and SQL, and receive an introduction to the SAP Business One software. They’ll also be able to join a 15-week coding boot camp to become computer engineers ready to be hired. Watch the video.
  • Currently, SAP is training teachers as coding instructors and also offers free online courses on the openSAP platform.
  • Refugee Code Week is a joint initiative by SAP, the UNHCR and the Galway Education Centre – in partnership with a growing network of partners including RebootKamp, local authorities, non-profits, NGOs, educational institutions, and businesses.

IT in the Spotlight

As part of the Refugee Code Week program, SAP will be holding coding workshops for more than 10,000 refugees from October 15 through 23 across the in the Middle East and Turkey (see green box). Refugee Code Week focuses on education as the foundation for self-sufficiency and future employability.

500 MEGAPIXELS Scratch_Arabic

Scratch interface in Arabic.

“Our goal is to empower everyone in the community – parents, teachers, volunteers, children, universities, schools, and nonprofits. By doing this, Refugee Code Week can put IT education at the heart of education programs for refugees, equipping thousands of young refugees with highly job-relevant skills that will provide the foundation for future employability and self-sufficiency – and many doors in their life beyond self-sufficiency,” says Houssam Chahin, UNHCR’s senior private sector partnerships officer in the Middle East and North Africa.

This initiative builds on the success of Africa Code Week 2015, during which SAP passed on coding skills to 89,000 children, teenagers, and young adults from 17 African nations over a ten-day period. The program was launched again for 2016 recently from Kigali and aims to reach 150,000 youth across 30 African countries.

Based on its successes with Africa Code Week, the UNHCR reached out to SAP as a key partner for Refugee Code Week. In collaboration with the UNHCR, Refugee Code Week is a central pillar of SAP’s Refugee Aid program for displaced people across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). In addition, it will strengthen the region’s IT landscape. In the Middle East particularly, a boost in the number of local IT specialists is not just desirable; it is absolutely critical to drive digital transformation and secure long-term economic growth throughout the region. In Saudi Arabia alone, the shortfall in skilled IT workers was 30,000 in 2014.

“By training young people in high-demand coding skills, Refugee Code Week is restoring refugee families’ hope for a better future, while building a pipeline of skilled workforce for Middle East companies currently seeking IT talent. Refugees have the determination and skills to support the region’s Digital Economy competitiveness,” says Alicia Lenze, head of Global Corporate Social Responsibility, SAP.


More initiatives in the SAP Refugee Aid Program:


Looking Forward to More Sessions

500 MEGAPIXELS Refugee_Code_Week_Class

Young women are facing a critical situation inside the refugee camps. Instead of a premature marriage, they are looking for opportunities for a self-determined life.

Preparations for Refugee Code Week are well under way: Volunteers from SAP started holding train-the-trainer courses in March and have already instructed 964 teachers, parents, and local volunteers with coding skills, which they can now pass on to students in their respective communities.

Mohammed speaks Arabic and English and is well versed in the programming languages C/C++, Scratch and Web programming. He and six of his colleagues spent two days training teachers at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, holding a total of 13 courses for 213 participants.

Some of Mohammed’s students were adults who had never used a computer mouse before and had no idea how to operate it. By contrast, a young Syrian woman who attended one of his advanced courses was already way ahead of her classmates after just 20 minutes. This woman had worked as a doctor in her home country and had to build a new life for herself as result of the war. Her story kept Mohammed awake night after night.

But there were plenty of bright spots, too. For example, a mother who was so inspired by the course that she brought her training materials home and so she could teach her children. Moments like this are part of the reason why Mohammed is looking forward to October, when he will meet with his talented students again and together, they will introduce coding to 2,000 children over the space of a week.

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