Last summer in a north-eastern suburb of Berlin, Anne Kjær Riechert met Muhammed, a refugee who arrived in Germany two years earlier. At the refugee camp, Muhammed shared his experiences with Riechert and told her he was completing an informatics degree in Baghdad before he fled.
“He told me when he got here, he couldn’t continue coding anymore because he didn’t have a laptop. And I thought that was really ridiculous,” recalled Riechert, who was visiting the locality to conduct research for the Peace Innovation Lab in Berlin, a Stanford University-linked research community that explores how technology can facilitate social change. “Here’s a young, talented and highly motivated guy who has a skill that we really need in Germany and that startups are looking for, but because he doesn’t have a laptop, he can’t participate.”
Inspired by the encounter, Riechert began brainstorming with people working in NGOs and thought: Why not build a program that supports refugees receiving an education that’ll help them enter the job market while their papers are being processed? For many asylum seekers who’ve risked their lives and often left behind families to seek a better future, waiting powerlessly for paperwork, a legal status or benefits is a bleak reality that can last from months to years.
If you live in Germany, it’s hard to miss out on the brouhaha regarding the recent influx of refugees into the country. Last year, Germany registered the arrivals of 1.1 million asylum seekers, many of which are fleeing war from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This figure is five times as many as in 2014.
After a lot of research and testing, ReDI School (pronounced ‘ready school’) was announced earlier this year. The non-profit organization Riechert co-founded with Ferdi Van Heerden aims to provide refugees with programs to gain tech skills and access to a network that’ll get them job-ready. For the inaugural program, ReDi School will host 49 students of varying tech backgrounds who will be equipped with laptops, which were donated by companies such as Wimdu.
Just in time for the launch, we spoke to Riechert about the evolution of ReDI School, common misconceptions about refugees and scaling the project responsibly.
WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR REDI SCHOOL ORIGINATE FROM?
We started the project in April 2015 after we could see that more and more Syrian refugees were arriving in Berlin. For the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been running the Peace Innovation Lab in Berlin and coordinating people who are interested in technology and social innovation. So we were asking ourselves: How can technology improve the lives of refugees who have already arrived in Germany?
AFTER A LOT OF RESEARCH AND BRAINSTORMING, THIS IDEA DEVELOPED INTO A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT DUBBED REFUGEES ON RAILS. HOW DID THIS INITIATIVE THEN EVOLVE TO BECOME A FULL-FLEDGED NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION, CALLED REDI SCHOOL?
I started Refugees on Rails with Weston Hankins and Ahmet Emre Açar, and in the beginning, we wanted to do it as a volunteer project next to our normal jobs. But the further we went into the research, the more we learned what was really needed to take an asylum seeker from where they are now to a job. We realized you need to have a very high quality program as well as consistency, and in order to provide that, you needed to have staff, money to pay them and legal registration. All of a sudden, we realized you needed a really strong organization with people who were committed to running it. Weston and Ahmet had their other jobs, and I also had one too, I but decided to quit my job in the beginning of January to focus on this.
CAN YOU GIVE US SOME INSIGHT ON THE TYPE OF PROGRAMMING AND COURSES THAT WILL BE OFFERED TO REFUGEES THROUGH THE SCHOOL?
We’ll start the program on February 14th with 49 students who have been screened. Basically, they need to prove they’re seeking asylum, are able to communicate and follow lessons in English, have a high school diploma – not that we’ll check it, but we want to ensure that they have an understanding of mathematics and logical thinking needed to become a programmer – and they have to submit a motivation letter, in English or German.
There are two different courses: A three-month course for students who have never programmed before and a six-month course for others who already have a couple of years experience studying or working in IT. There’s a teacher for every seventh student, so they’re working in relatively small groups. We hold classes on Sundays and then work with co-working spaces, such as hub:raum and Betahaus, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings so students can meet their mentors and build things while getting local support. At the end of the course, there will be a Demo Day, where students present ideas they’ve been working on throughout the course. For me, that’s a really exciting part because when we’re able to equip them with the skills needed to build websites, and potentially apps, they can start solving some issues they’re dealing with – I think we’ll find some fascinating solutions.
I think the big problem is that many people are talking about refugees, but are informed only by media and not from actually talking to refugees. I can't emphasize enough just getting to know refugees and having a good conversation about who they are and understanding what they need.
HAVING VISITED SEVERAL REFUGEE CAMPS FIRST-HAND, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT REFUGEES DISSEMINATED IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE?
I think the big problem is that many people are talking about refugees, but are informed only by media and not from actually talking to refugees – so it’s a very biased view. I can’t emphasize enough just getting to know refugees and having a good conversation about who they are, what their ambitions are in life and understanding what they need. For me, it’s been incredible to meet people who have arrived here. They’ve gone through so much. You must be a pioneer if you decide to leave your country, and potentially leave your family and friends behind, in order to go seek a better future. It’s a massive journey for most people to come here, and it takes an incredible resilience to make it. And once you’re here, you have to persist inside of the system – register at the LaGeSo several times and try to adjust to this new world. You have to be very change-ready, or have the kind of personality where you can adjust your lifestyle to fit the system in order to survive it. If we look at the qualities required to be a refugee, and we took away the refugee status, it would be more or less what most companies are looking for: highly motivated people who work hard, can adapt to change and who are very resilient when things get chaotic.
FOR COMPANIES AND INDIVIDUALS WHO WANT TO CONTRIBUTE TO REDI SCHOOL, WHAT IS THE BEST WAY FOR THEM TO HELP?
There are several ways to help. For companies, it could be a donation or to develop a CSR project with us. It could also be to have employees volunteer as teachers or mentors, and in the future to recruit our students as employees. Companies with old, functional laptops, which are about 2-3 years old, could also be donated to us. As for individuals, people with coding background can help out as teachers or mentors 3-4 hours per week. We’ll also be starting a crowdfunding campaign through Betterplace soon.
If we look at the qualities required to be a refugee, and we took away the refugee status, it would be more or less what most companies are looking for: highly motivated people who work hard, can adapt to change and who are very resilient when things get chaotic.
HOW DO YOU SEE REDI SCHOOL GROWING IN THE NEXT YEAR OR SO?
Our aim is to really nail it before we scale it. We have a lot of requests from other cities in Germany, and in Europe, wanting to do the same thing, but I don’t want to suddenly be in 20 different places and have to manage that before we actually know it works. Right now, we’re starting the courses here with 49 students and it’s really about prototyping, learning and listening to feedback to improve the program. Of course, the long-term ambition is that it could be all across Europe, and across the world, but realistically speaking, one step at a time. I guess you could say that my aim is responsible growth. I mean in the startup industry, it’s always about growth, growth, growth and how are you going to scale, but for me, it’s really about responsible scaling.