Programming a better future for refugees


  • Nation
  • Sunday, 21 Jul 2019

Tech solution: The key to new horizons for refugees could be learning how to code. — RASHVINJEET S. BEDI/The Star

LIFE has been tough for Mohamad and his family who fled their home in Syria for Malaysia one year ago because of the war in the Middle Eastern country.

He says before the war that started years ago, one could survive in Syria provided one didn’t dabble in politics, but today, it is a different story.

Mohamad, 36, had no choice but to flee his home as it is compulsory for Syrian men between the ages of 18 and 42 to serve in the military, with those evading the requirement facing imprisonment.

“I don’t want to fight. Why should I kill just because someone wants to remain in power? I don’t want to be part of that,” he says.

Besides that, there are queues for almost everything, including a basic necessity like fuel, while electricity cuts are commonplace.

While life in Malaysia has been better, it is still not easy for Mohamad, who is here with his wife and two children aged six and nine.

“I have tried applying for jobs, but I haven’t had any luck,” he says.

He is currently sustaining his family on his savings but says that money will be running out soon.

To improve his fortunes, he enrolled in a coding course for refugees.

Today, he is among 20 refugees and asylum seekers who are learning coding in an office in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

A programme offered by nonprofit group Host International, the mission of Re.code, as it is known, is to help refugees and asylum seekers to find freedom from employment exploitation by developing in-demand professional skills; these skills will, hopefully, allow them to gain financial independence.

The programme was co-founded by Jeanne Makinadjian and Alex McFaull, who have been living in Malaysia since 2015.

Makinadjian, who assists refugees in legal advocacy, recognised the need for refugees to find a way to earn a living while they wait for resettlement in a third country.

She points out that the process of resettlement is usually a long one, sometimes taking up to 15 years.

“Families are left in indefinite limbo, forced to work illegally in dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs to provide for themselves and their families,” she says.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol and lacks a legal or administrative framework regulating the status and rights of refugees in Malaysia.

Considered to be undocumented immigrants under the Malaysian Immigration Act, refugees here are at risk of arrest, detention and deportation.

As of June this year, there are 175,760 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia; of that number, 152,220 – or 87% – are refugees from Myanmar.

Refugees are not allowed to work legally but still need to support themselves and their families, so many end up working informally – but that means they are at risk of abuse and exploitation at the hands of employers.

This is where coding comes in as a solution to these restrictions and geographical borders.

“Coding is attractive because it can be done remotely with a laptop and an Internet connection.

“It is a well-paying job that is very much in demand. It is a clever solution to a complex problem,” says Makinadjian.

“The fact is, if you can solve the problem of income, you can solve a lot of problems such as food, rent and schooling,” she says, adding that they want to open the programme to Malaysians from the low-income segment of society in the future.

The initial batch of 20 was chosen after a series of aptitude tests and interviews. They include refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Somali, Syria and Yemen.

Almost 200 people had applied to be part of the four-month programme, which is open to refugees in the Klang Valley.

The participants learn programming languages such HTML, CSS, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, SQL and Javascript.

These languages are useful in building both the front-end and the back-end of a website, says instructor Joel Lim.

“It (building websites) is very in demand right now. Every company needs a presence on the web,” he says.

On the day we visit, the class is applying their skills to build a programme to solve a Sudoku table.

For Mohamad, coding is a new horizon for him, one that he hopes will ensure that he and his family have a better future.

“Finding work in programming and web development would mean a better future. I won’t have to suffer because I am not able to work,” he says.

 

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