Asylum seekers in Germany hone coding skills on donated laptops

by Joseph D'Urso | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 October 2015 11:53 GMT

Syrian migrant Mohamad Algahmian looks at family pictures on a laptop in his flat in the "Sharehaus Refugio" community in Berlin, where Germans and migrants live together, Germany August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

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Berliners have donated over 160 laptops for students to borrow

LONDON, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Anne Kjaer Riechert met an Iraqi man who had recently fled to Berlin, he told her he was a trained software developer but lacked the one thing he needed to work in Germany - a laptop.

The July encounter inspired her and two others to start "Refugees on Rails", a project which gives migrants the skills, equipment and connections to help them join Berlin's thriving tech industry.

She and co-founders Weston Hankins and Ahmet Emre say their project - named after the Ruby on Rails programming language - will both plug a skills gap in Germany and help migrants in need, and hope it will be copied around Europe.

"It was so obvious to me what a difference we could make by just giving (the Iraqi) a laptop and the internet," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the man, whose asylum application is being processed, wanted to stay anonymous.

Many recent asylum seekers arriving in Germany have smartphones, but the screens are too small for complex programming, so Berliners have donated over 160 laptops for students to borrow, and some 200 people have volunteered to help.

Refugees on Rails has started one-day coding sessions for migrants in central Berlin, and will begin three-month courses soon. As well as acquiring language and computing skills, students will be encouraged to network with potential future colleagues.

Germany expects 800,000 to 1 million migrants to arrive this year, and many will bring skills that are in short supply in the country, Refugees On Rails' founders say.

The project will ultimately benefit German citizens too, said Kjaer Riechert. "There is a real need for people who can code in Berlin."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far resisted pressure from some in her own party to take a less welcoming stance on refugees, with many feeling the country cannot cope with the record influx.

The coding project is for people whose asylum applications are pending and are barred from paid work, and who hope to work in the technology sector if their claims are accepted, said Kjaer Riechert, who is descended from Germans who fled to Denmark as refugees in the 1930s.

Migrants with degrees including doctorates in computing have expressed interest, she said, so for now the project is only taking students with some experience.

"We have interest from people wanting to start the programme in several other German and European cities such as Leipzig, Copenhagen and Stockholm ... We already have several startup companies in Berlin asking us if they can hire our students."

(Reporting By Joseph D'Urso, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)