This Program Is Helping Refugees Break Into the Tech Industry

A coding school that grew out of the 2015 refugee crisis in Germany is helping women and people of color prepare for jobs in technology.

Students at ReDI School participate in the Humanitarian Hackathon in partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Photo from ReDI School.

It’s early on a Saturday morning, and in a modern glass high-rise in central Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, a group of workers rhythmically pecks away at laptops.

Twenty years ago, this entire area was a wasteland, ruined by the war and the Berlin Wall. Now it’s home to buildings like this one, occupied by high tech companies such as WeWork and Facebook. The workers—dressed smartly in boots, jeans, and colorful tops—look different from the typical black-clad tech crowd. More diverse and mostly women, they are students of ReDI School, a coding program that arose from the 2015 refugee crisis in Germany.

The nonprofit has blossomed into one of the largest known coding programs for refugees in the world. Through partnerships with some of the biggest companies in Germany, such as Klöckner & Co. and U.S.-based Cisco, it has over 500 current students and 1,000 graduates and has earned accolades from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some of its graduates have already formed their own startups, including one that created a forthcoming app that will make it easier for newcomers to navigate German bureaucracy.

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Last year, ReDI (which stands for Readiness for Digital Integration) opened a second location in Munich and this year plans to expand into Hamburg a program for women it began two years ago. Currently, some 40 percent of its students are women.

“It was important for us to step up and say, ‘If we want diversity in the tech scene, we need to drive it,’” Anne Kjær Riechert says.

Kjær Riechert started ReDI as refugees and migrants poured into Europe, including more than 1 million in Germany alone, after she began noticing a problem with many of the early efforts to help them.

She had pursued peace studies in college and did her master’s thesis on massive online collaborations for social change. So she knew that while one could get 50,000 or even 100,000 people to collaborate on developing ideas, implementation can fall short if you fail to cocreate with people on the ground.

In other words, for the process to work, users had to be part of it. At the beginning of the refugee crisis, many projects fell short of that measure, including one that wanted to provide cameras and photography lessons to refugees so they could document their lives.

“Those pictures would have been really interesting—to us,” Kjær Riechert said. “But when you’ve just been through hell and this is the most undignified moment of your life, the last thing you want to do is take a photo of it,” she said.

By contrast, Kjær Riechert visited refugee homes to learn what they needed. On one of those trips, she met a young man who had studied computer science at Baghdad University but had been unable to continue learning because he didn’t own a laptop.

Thus, ReDI was created with a mantra: “We need to stop talking about refugees and start talking to them.”

At the time, 43,000 information technology positions were going unfilled in Germany and in Berlin startups were scrambling to find developers to program the next big app. Helping refugees learn software development and gain employment in technology would benefit them as well as the industry.

60 percent of the students at ReDI School in Berlin are women. Photo from ReDI School.

Other startups are also tapping into the skills of refugees, such as U.S.-based NaTakallam, which enables refugees to use their language skills to earn money, and Talent Beyond Boundaries, which connects skilled refugees with international job opportunities.

But teaching coding to refugees is only part of what ReDI does. The school not just collaborates with industry partners to tailor courses around company's needs, but invites companies to run ReDI classes.

“A lot of people have very strong stereotypes about refugees, but once you put them in the same room together to discuss a topic that both sides are passionate about, they can imagine hiring them,” explained Claus Schaale, who has taught cloud computing to ReDI students at Cisco.

Rita Butman landed a full-time job as a customer support engineer at Cisco in 2018 after completing a three-month IoT (Internet of Things) course at ReDI. A telecom engineer from Damascus, she left Syria not because of the civil war, but because as a woman she believed she could not be fully free in her home country.

“I applied to a lot of jobs, but when the companies here see that I’m Syrian, they think I don’t have a professional background, and that’s totally wrong,” she says, pointing out that in Damascus she had worked in a professional company.

She is one of four full-time employees that Cisco hired from ReDI, along with 16 interns—all of whom benefit from having the company’s name on their resumes.

Photo from ReDI School.

While it got its start during the refugee crisis, ReDI isn’t open only to refugees. Anyone can apply and be admitted based on need. Kjær Riechert and her team frequently visit schools in some of Berlin’s most deprived areas to teach about technology as a way of getting that message across.

Sarwa, a German citizen learning graphic design at ReDI, said not only is she integrating herself into the digital world, she is also helping fellow students who are refugees integrate into German life. As a Kurdish woman who has lived in Germany for 30 years, speaks four languages, and understands both German and Arab culture, she acts as a guide for many of the women around her by helping them deal with bureaucracy, explaining how to enroll their children in kindergarten, or apply to university.

“I like the international atmosphere here,” she said, asking that her last name not be used. “I also feel very international, rather than just German. So as an international … I think it’s my duty to welcome and help these people who have chosen our country to be safe and to live.”

In 2017, ReDI organized a number of workshops in which refugee women joined women in Berlin’s tech sector to discuss what was needed to get more women into the school. Together, they created an entire program just for women that included courses introducing them to laptops because they realized that many women were being left behind due to a lack of basic computer literacy.

From there they would advance to courses covering Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, all the way up to the IT career courses that are open to both men and women.

The course ends with pitch presentations of student projects. Photo from ReDI School.

The women’s program makes other accommodations, too. Classes take place on Saturday mornings instead of evenings, when many women are putting their children to bed or spending time with their families. Child care and translators are also provided. As a result, the percentage of women in ReDI increased from 10 to 40 percent.

Simret Haylat, a refugee from Eritrea, is among those taking advantage of this new program. It had taken her three years to get to Germany, via Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, and Italy. Now in Germany a year, she is training to become a nurse while waiting to get her refugee status. Her hope is to reunite with her husband, who is in Israel, and whom she says she hasn’t seen for eight years.

At ReDI, she has already taken a basic computer training course, learning how to create her resume, shop online, and use Google. Now, she is continuing her training with a basic coding course.