For Syrian Refugees, Learning To Code In Times Of War

A chronicle of one organization’s determination to point Syrian refugees toward a better future through innovative education.

Syrian refugees at Al-Salam school in Reyhanli, Turkey
Syrian refugees at Al-Salam school in Reyhanli, Turkey
Christopher M. Schroeder

The Karam Foundation has been a leading education NGO in Syria for the past three years. Supporting five refugee schools on the Syrian border, and ten schools inside Syria, Chicago-based co-founder, Lina Sergie Attar knew that the kids there were hungering for more tools, better connection and a chance to find paths to the future.

They created the Karam Foundation Leadership Program (KLP) designed for Syrian refugee teens to have access to technology and mentors. The program, launched last November with a computer center of 22 stations, includes workshops to help supplement basic education and marketable work skills for when they return. The curriculum includes team-building, technology, coding, basic business/entrepreneurial skills, and physical education.

REYHANLI â€" Moe Ghashim has become something of a legend in the Middle East as the founder of the e-commerce company ShopGO. Born in Syria, he started his career in 2003 in the United States within a small e-commerce agency.

By 2007, Ghashim took the first step toward building his own e-commerce agency, and five years later built a platform for the Middle East and North Africa region that allows merchants with no technical background to create their own online store without programming headaches.

With his professional experience and his Syrian origins, becoming a mentor at KLP was an easy decision. “Technology matters in this context for two reasons,” Ghashim explained. “First off, technology literally won me a life. All Syrians I know as émigrés or refugees have struggled to adapt to the new life. It’s a life without history, a life where you have to prove yourself all over again. Because of technology, I â€" anyone â€" can speak the modern language. I’m an international resident, I’m already part of the new world. Second, thanks to technology I was able to start my company after a couple of months. Technology is cheap and you can reach millions easily. I can start a company, try and fail quickly without losing a fortune. If it works I build jobs for many. If not, when I’m looking for a job then I've got what everyone is looking for: a workforce with tech skills.”

On his first visit to Reyhanli, Turkey, as part of KLP, Ghashim was amazed by the drive, curiosity and talent of the teenagers and how they took to computing and the idea of starting their own companies. He returned wanting to take the engagement to a whole new level. He created pre-mission assessments of the best entrepreneurs over Skype before he arrived for the second KLP mission last April and developed a four-day workshop curriculum with two goals: to show the 40 teens (20 girls and 20 boys) what they needed to succeed and how they could apply their skills for their own education and for starting businesses. He ended up hiring three for ShopGO on the spot; 14 more will join them in July. Others have subsequently found jobs online. All of the students will work from the Karam Leadership Program computer lab.

A different hunger

Ghashim quips, “The ones who gave us a hard time the first time we visited the school turned to be the ones who shine. They were engaged, quick in learning and serious throughout the workshop. I know that there's nothing they can't do if they’re introduced to the right ideas and program.” He pauses and reflects: “I went to Turkey with low expectations, thinking I would meet with angry kids who had got used to the fact they’re ‘refugees.’ The surprise was that those kids were so prepared and made sure they studied all the materials we sent them. They finished a four/five day program in two days. They were hungry to learn.”

Moustafa is one of those 14 kids.

He’s a tall, handsome young man who just completed 10th grade. Sporting a baseball cap, he hails from Houla, a village outside Homs now known for its 2012 massacre. Moustafa lived in Houla and took computer courses in Homs since he was in fifth grade. He is brilliant â€" and seemingly unaware of his brilliance. He taught himself five programming languages online and has designed more than 100 games.

Moustafa was displaced multiple times before settling in Reyhanli, where he joined the KLP pilot in November. He took the Scratch coding course with other mentors like Ghashim and quickly advanced to teach Scratch to the younger children at the school. He has since been assigned to be the monitor of the Karam computer lab.

Karam co-founder Lina Sergie-Attar understands that Moustafa is a seed: As he takes hold, dozens of others will as well. Success will breed success; great things have humble beginnings. She smiles in reflection: “When we first met him he was shy and when I asked him, ‘What do you want to be?’, he said, ‘A computer engineer.’ This time he was smiling confidently â€" he looked like a different person. I asked him again, ‘What to you want to be?’ and he said, ‘I want to go to America, to the best university and design the best games.’”

And he WhatsApp chats every day about his future with other mentors he met at KLP.

“Jobs are passports to futures,” Ghashim declares. “Technology is the Swedish passport. It will take these kids anywhere.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!