On Sunday 14th February, the ReDI School of Digital Integration brought 40 students to GTEC to learn coding. Though not obvious at first glance, what is striking about this group is that most of the students come from Syria and all of them are currently seeking asylum in Germany.
ReDI School is a non-profit organisation founded by Anne Riechert and Ferdi Van Heerden in December last year which aims to teach refugees tech skills and give them access to a future professional and social network, whilst waiting for their asylum application to be processed. The students in this course will attending coding and mentoring sessions over the next three months, with the Sunday sessions being hosted at GTEC.
We talked to Riechert about where this idea came from, the plans to scale it, and why they see it as an essential step in successful integration, both short and long term.
The ReDI School ran its first class last Sunday – how was it?
It was brilliant. Seeing a room full of people learning how to code, supported by an international community of mentors from Berlin’s startup scene was amazing. The idea has become reality and that puts a smile on my face.
The idea has been longer in the making. Tell us what it came from?
Two and a half years ago I founded the Berlin Peace Innovation Lab in collaboration with Stanford University. That now has over 1600 members. Early in 2015, when the scale of the refugee criss became clear, we moved the conversation to the role tech could play in improving the situation for those coming to Germany. This culminated in June in a huge brainstorming session, involving refugees, social workers, representatives from NGOs at the Rotes Rathaus. To better understand the problem, I visited refugee camps. That’s where I met Muhammad, an IT student from Bagdad, who had been in Germany for two years waiting for asylum. What he really wanted to do was continue his IT studies and get a job, but throughout that time he’d had no access to a laptop. Here was this talented and motivated guy with skills highly in demand in Germany and no opportunity to develop or use them. This struck me as crazy.
I was talking about this to people from Deutsche Telekom – about the main issue which was lack of access to laptops – and they said they would be happy to support me in doing something about it. That was on a Thursday. Over that weekend I got a website made and a logo designed. By Monday we had launched the first iteration of this: ”Refugees on Rails”, giving refugees access to laptops to develop coding skills online.
How did the idea evolve from there?
By that point, I’d involved two other co-founders with tech backgrounds. As we got into it, we realised being able to provide laptops was not enough. People can build skills online, but courses taught in person are proven to be more effective. What’s more, refugees need skills, but crucially they also need a network of real people – for jobs and for social contact. It’s as much what you know as who you know.
The idea was to build a coding school. We thought the tech and startup ecosystem in Berlin would be a great place to start this. It’s international, mostly English-speaking, incredibly open, and people only care about what you can do, not which certificates you’ve got on the wall. So we got started with a pilot project in December – with 13 students mostly from Syria. And now we’ve just started our first official batch of 40.
What do the students do on the course?
We have divided the students into small teams – with six or seven students. We started the process by identifying challenges they face – such as German bureaucracy, how to improve language skills, getting a job, integrating through the food we eat. Each group has chosen the topic they are most interested in and are working together to come up with a solution. They will do this in the three hour coding sessions on Sundays, and then in the two evening mentoring sessions (Wednesdays and Thursdays). It’s great: we already have some prototypes on paper – such as DHL tracking system for your asylum papers.
How do you decide who gets to take part?
Students need to have applied for asylum and to speak relatively fluent English – our teaching language. But for the Syrians coming to Berlin, that’s really not a problem. Many of them are highly educated young people who have interrupted their university studies.
We’ve set up two different tracks, depending on academic background and experience. The basic course is for people with a high school diploma and some maths skills but who have never programmed before. The advanced course is for people who may have studied IT for two to three years or have work experience in IT – for example on our course right now is banker who worked in the IT department of a bank in Damascus for five years.
Part of what is so exciting is bringing people with skills together with local experts – it becomes not just about getting a job but also about giving people who know the challenges first-hand an opportunity to come up with the potential solutions rather than having them imposed on them by well-meaning outsiders.
It sounds tremendous, but I bet it has required a lot of support. Where have you got that from?
It has involved an amazing conglomerate of people and organisations. For this first program, we’ve partnered with Klöckner & Co, a steel distribution company going through a massive digitisation process. They are supporting the first 40 students. For them, it means access to new talent and an opportunity to give back. For the future, we plan to strike up other partnerships – with companies in a similar process of digitisation.
Right now, we’re in the Axel Springer Plug & Play Accelerator. That runs for three months. GTEC is hosting our Sunday classes, and our Wednesday and Thursday mentoring sessions are taking place at six different co-working spaces across Berlin – Hub:raum, Impact Hub, Plug & Play, Betahaus, Rainmaking Loft and St Oberholz.
As for the mentors and teachers, they mostly come from the startup industry, plus a few people just graduated from university with background in coding. They are from all over the world. It’s really cool when you go into the classes because it’s just not obvious who is teacher or the student. These people are future friends and future colleagues, meeting in a genuine way over their excitement about tech.
How do you want to see the ReDI School developing from here?
We are really focused on delivering impact here and now. Our immediate targets are to get students either into jobs or internships, to strengthen the wider mindset that tech can help build solutions to huge problems like this, and finally to enable successful integration – to help people live dignified lives in Germany with German friends being able to speak German. Ultimately, even if you end up being a terrible programmer, but you have great friends and a network, the course has been a success.
But the big vision is to make it into a franchise that can expand and scale across Europe (even globally). Right now, we have 40 students. If we take four batches a year only that’s only 160 students. Look at size of the overall challenge: it’s only a drop in the ocean. But we have to find a responsible way of scaling, which ensures the quality of program. Scaling people can be hard. An online course with a mentor sitting in Berlin and frequent Skype calls doesn’t build the same relationship. That’s what we’ve got to figure out – how to scale the human connection and maintain the quality of impact of that personal network.
Thank you, Anne, for telling us about this inspiring project and for using GTEC as a host for the classes.
To find out more about ReDI School of Integration, check out their website.