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What a Start-Up Learned Teaching Coding in Refugee Camps in Africa

We speak to Omron Blauo, co-founder of the Refugee Code Academy, about his efforts to bring coding skills to refugee camps in Africa and what he has learned from the challenges they faced along the way.

Written by Natalie Sikorski Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Refugees at a World Food Program food distribution on February 17, 2016, in Dzaleka, Malawi.Henry Wilkins / Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

While visiting Europe in 2015, Omron Blauo, the son of a Libyan refugee living in the U.S., was struck by the attention that boats arriving from Greece received compared to how little media coverage there was of refugee crises in Africa.

When he returned to the U.S., the biomedical engineering student concocted a plan with friends to create a coding academy for refugees. At their first boot camp in Arizona, many refugees asked why they had not received such training while they were stuck for years in refugee camps waiting for resettlement.

So the Refugee Code Academy, as they called their start-up, decided to go to Africa. Their first project was to teach coding at the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, home to more than 70,000 Congolese and some 65,000 Burundian refugees.

But they ran into a number of obstacles facing refugees on the ground in Tanzania, including bureaucratic red tape, stretched resources and resistance to refugee integration. They have since tested a second program in Dzaleko Camp, Malawi, while conducting hackathons and technology workshops and exploring remote employment opportunities for newly trained refugee developers.

Refugees Deeply: What do you think accounts for the lack of attention and investment in tech solutions for refugees in Africa?

Omron Blauo: Not a lot of media coverage is put into Africa and that’s reflected in funding. For tech solutions, it’s also very difficult to work in this type of environment. There are pretty big issues with regulations and legal structures you have to abide by. The governments are very different than what we’re used to, let’s say, in the Middle East.

Refugees Deeply: Why is a coding school important for refugees in countries like Tanzania when so many refugees lack access to basic needs such as primary school, food and shelter?

Blauo: You don’t necessarily need an advanced degree to start coding or learn a digital skill, you just need perseverance. So if you’re over 16 years old, you don’t need to go back to primary or secondary school. It allows you the option to learn something without going back into the normal education system.

Many people in refugee camps have no means of making an income, because they’re not allowed to work in the local economy in many countries. By delivering a solution that can allow them to work remotely, we’re able to extend their ability to start working for themselves and be paid remotely.

Refugees Deeply: What challenges did you face during your first project in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp?

Blauo: There were a few difficulties. It comes down to how people view refugees in these host countries. Sometimes the media portrays things locally that might not be true, which affects legal issues, such as refugees being able to work and the resources that are given to them.

Tanzania is a very poor country. It’s great that they are able to take that many refugees. In the end, they may house someone for 20 years. It’s been very difficult for us, as technology people, to see how long [refugees stay in camps] and the loss of drive in that whole psychological process. [International agencies] are doing what they need to do to protect refugees and pursue their mandate, but there are a lot of gaps. There needs to be more people pushing legislation to better integrate refugees into the local population.

It’s very hard for someone to thrive in this environment. Some of the youth were studying in Congo or Burundi but all of their studies were completely stopped [after they fled]. They’re still thinking big, but now they’re stuck in this new situation. It’s very hard to say that we are going to change someone’s life. But to inspire someone and provide a connection to the outside – that’s really what we’re trying to do.

Refugees Deeply: Did Refugee Code Academy take any lessons away from the experience in Tanzania that other start-ups should learn from?

Blauo: We would have worked directly with an implementing organization with ongoing education programs. No one had a deep understanding of how refugee camps were run. We spent too much time seeking a working relationship that was not a good fit whereas we should have focused our resources on organizations working every day in the community, who understand the needs of the population as well as the policy.

Now we have validated our model we are focusing on adding value to implementing education partners and clients seeking quality remote work at a fair price. Other start-ups should focus on regions where they understand the politics, history and views on migrants and refugees, in addition to the current projects going on. Oftentimes there are overlapping projects that are lost amongst bureaucracy.

Refugees Deeply: What made the context different in Malawi’s Dzaleka Camp?

Blauo: The different factors include a strong community-focused implementing partner, a location that is roughly a 45-minute drive from the main city Lilongwe and a strong Wi-Fi connection that is better than most cafes I work from in [Tanzanian capital] Dar es Salaam. In addition it’s an older encampment, where there is understanding of long-term needs such as education.

Refugees Deeply: What did you learn personally from your experience bringing Refugee Code Academy to Africa?

Blauo: As a Libyan American, I am attached to learning about the stories of the people who flee their homes and become stateless. It’s a terrifying concept, because I (and many people reading this) was born in a certain country that allows me to come to a place where many people are not allowed to leave. I have met some of the most brilliant people I have come across on the planet in the refugee camps, and I want governments to take steps to not waste this potential. As an entrepreneur, at the end of the day, we have to add value and there is a lot of need to create value.

This interview was conducted by phone and email and has been edited for length and clarity.

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