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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 — 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 — anyone — 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 — 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 — 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."

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