A Startup Empowering Refugees with a Hand Up

By Akudo McGee 7 Min Read

The large increase in people fleeing their homes to seek protection and asylum abroad has been coined a "crisis" since the summer of 2015. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of June 2017, there were approximately 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, 22.5 million of whom have received official refugee status and only 189,300 of whom have been resettled (in 2016). These staggering figures sometimes make it difficult to see the immeasurable human suffering behind statistics.

It would be unfair to ask readers to image fleeing their homes, losing possessions and possibly family and friends and then sitting in a camp for what could be months or years. Instead, it may be easier to think of how many everyday processes would be disrupted by similarly destructive life events. One of those everyday processes, is something that many of us take for granted, going to school. According to the UNHCR’s latest education report, 3.5 million refugee children didn’t attend school in 2016; 61% of them attend primary school, compared to the global average of 91%.

The inability to attend school is detrimental for many reasons. It can mean that an entire generation (and our future) is unable to obtain the necessary skills to live stable lives and find employment even if they can leave the camp. These statistics are especially bleak when one considers that some people spend over a decade or more in a camp, waiting for their legal pleas to be accepted. But what can be done? Maybe Moroccan-based startup, Refugee Code Academy has an answer.

Omron Blauo, co-founder of the Refugee Code Academy and son of a Libyan refugee living in the US, first felt an opportunity to make a difference when he noticed the lack of coverage for the refugee crisis happening across Africa. Then a biomedical engineering student, Blauo got together with friends to share his idea of a coding academy specifically for refugees. The Academy, originally launched for resettled refugees in Arizona, was then planned for more launches in refugee camps after refugees in Arizona asked why they didn’t receive this education and training while awaiting resettlement.

It was then that Blauo decided to make the Refugee Code Academy available in Africa. Their first endeavor was in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, which at the time mainly housed refugees from the Congo and Burundi.

RCA invests in the forgotten. We have traveled to a collective of 6 refugee camps two being the largest in the world, and see the potential.

How does it work?

The Refugee Code Academy addresses the refugee crisis by proposing an arrangement where technology companies form partnerships with talented refugees in the tech industry, therefore, allowing them to become part of the IT workforce and maintain an active education while awaiting processing in camps. They’re hoping to break the chain of refugee under-education due to disruptive life events and life in camps, where fewer educational opportunities are provided. If this is successful, instead of a refugee being placed in the US after leaving a camp and only being able to obtain a minimum wage job, more skilled jobs could be available to them based on their educational background in the IT industry. This startup is thus designed to function as an economic matchmaker, paring the number of individuals out of school and ready and capable of learning with tech companies seeking qualified workers to fill various roles.

Coding was specifically relevant for Blauo because no advanced degree is required for it. In fact, many who don’t have a coding or IT background find it intuitive and simple for those not as digitally skilled, skill here depends on how hard you’re willing to work at coding. This form of education is thus accessible for refugees who may not go back to primary or secondary school and who are not allowed to work by the legal restrictions in their host country. It allows them to work remotely from the camp and be paid remotely while working for themselves.

Issues and Red Tape

After their initial launch in the Nyarugusu camp and a subsequent launch in the Dzaleko Camp (in Malawi), it became apparent that the working climate in many African nations was quite different than those they were used to in the Middle East. In addition to standard the red tape that many international startups deal with, there are often difficult regulations and legal structures that the Refugee Code Academy had to abide by as well. Besides the official blockades to efforts in these countries, the psychological exhaustion of people who have lost so much, including, in some cases, the will to go on, can also pose a problem.

Red tape and other issues aside, the Refugee Code Academy has the potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of thousands of refugees. There is no guarantee that they will make a difference in someone’s life but their initiatives are well-grounded to try. The process of educating and empowering others to seek solutions to pressing issues like education and economic stability not only allows them to regain a sense of security but it allows them to maintain the dignity of deciding their future through their own intellect and hard work.


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