Devugees Welcome

One company’s mission to integrate refugees through technology

Alison RhoadesSoheil Moradianboroujeni

Tucked away in a small classroom in Kreuzberg, a group of ten men sit at their laptops concentrating hard on their tasks. They’re learning the basics of coding, and are making great progress, says their instructor Jörg Pietschmann. But this isn’t your typical tech seminar. 

The majority of the students came from Syria, fleeing the terrors of war, and are now participating in a year-long web-development training course with the hopes of finding employment here in Germany. “So far, it’s really good,” says participant Abdulrazak, from Syria. “As a refugee with a destroyed home, it’s really good to build a new life here.”

The years since 2015 have seen the highest numbers of displaced people around the world fleeing war and poverty since World War II. It’s one thing to volunteer once a month at a refugee centre or to donate some clothes, but the Devugees Digital Career Institute, the brainchild of four startup pioneers and entrepreneurs, has a loftier goal in mind, and aims to empower refugees through training in the fields of software development, programming, and web development. Their goal is twofold: to help refugees assimilate into society, and to train dedicated workers to fill high-demand positions. With the number of displaced people across the world continuing to rise, it is arguably an ideal fit to train refugees in a skill that they can perform almost anywhere in the world.

We train them in a one-year course to become fully integrated into society by earning money and working in a company.

The four project managers at Devugees spend their days running between course locations, dealing with programme participants, setting up and running information sessions, and organising courses and internships. “It’s not something you can do in your spare time,” says project manager Johannes Kleine about the job. “I have never worked so much in my life,” he says earnestly. Johannes has a background in academia, but after handing in his doctoral thesis, he wanted to give something back to society: “I was dealing with the refugee crisis academically, but I wasn’t really engaged in making the lives of refugees better.”

Devugees was established by Stephan Bayer, the founder of Berlin-based online learning platform sofatutor.com, and its head of HR Adiba Salloum, along with entrepreneurs Steffen Zoller and Angelo Juric. Moved by the harrowing images of refugees pouring into the country, and hearing stories of destroyed homes and loved ones lost, they wanted to find a way to help. “The founders thought, we can have a big social impact if we train refugees who haven’t finished their education because of the war,” says Johannes. Using their contacts in the tech and startup community, the founders looked for a gap in the market, working with HR teams to figure out which industry could really use workers. Web and software development was a perfect fit, particularly for refugees who already had some kind of technical training.

Around 280,000 refugees and migrants entered Germany in 2016, down from approximately 890,000 in 2015, according to The New York Times. However, integration and getting refugees set up in a job is no easy task. Reuters reported last year that of the refugees arriving in Germany between January 1st 2013 and January 1st 2016, only 13% found work.

But this doesn’t mean that there are no jobs to be had. Another recent article in The New York Times puts the number of unfilled jobs in Germany in 2016 at a shocking 658,000. The arduous process of navigating the system, paired with the difficulties of assimilating to western life, leaves many refugees not only unable to find employment, but feeling hopeless and resigned. With this in mind, Devugees aims to expose refugees to training that will help them find a job, while integrating them into German culture and meeting the high demand for web developers in Germany: “We train them in a one-year course to become fully integrated into society by earning money and working in a company, and at the same time we do something for our industry, because we release the tension in the job market, which is so high right now,” explains Johannes.

You didn’t feel safe. You didn’t have water, you didn’t have money; also, you didn’t have security.

So how does the programme actually work? “First there’s a four-week orientation course, where people who are interested in the course participate full-time,” says Johannes. “We’ll also tour startups with them as well as bigger companies, and we have the HR teams speak to them about how they hire people, who they need, where they foresee the biggest demand in a year when these students will probably be on the job market, and they also do an introduction to HTML and CSS – basic coding languages that you definitely need to be a web developer.”

“After these four weeks, the participants will have a pretty good idea of what the tech scene in Berlin is like, what their job chances will be if they do the year-long course, and what the course will be about. They’ll already know all the teachers, they will have met people from different agencies, different entrepreneurs who come to them and tell their stories about how they became web developers or how they made it in the tech scene.” At this point, participants can decide if they would like to take the course, where they will learn all the skills needed to have a successful career as a web developer. This includes a three-month internship, where they will have the chance to train at partner companies such as Zalando, Babbel, Bonify, and sofatutor. They are also assigned a buddy, an industry professional to mentor them throughout the programme. Additionally, the students benefit from nine German lessons every week, as language is often the most common barrier to getting a job.

Keeping up with trends in the tech industry is also key: “We’re constantly talking to startups and other companies we cooperate with about what languages they need … so if we realise there is a big shift in the industry, we can adapt our curriculum,” explains Johannes.

This innovative approach to education through hands-on training is one of the things that drew Hussein Farhat to the programme. Hussein is from Lebanon, and came to Berlin in 2016 on a family visa. “I came here by plane, so my story is a bit different than those who came by boat,” he says. Still, his prospects weren’t much better than those fleeing Syria. Like many of his refugee colleagues, Hussain is highly educated and has a university degree in accounting. However, getting permission to work and finding a job has been a challenge, particularly because he doesn’t speak German: “The language is a big part of what you can do and what you can’t do.” Additionally, the bureaucracy proved particularly challenging for him, a common experience among immigrants and refugees alike. Despite Hussein’s wife being a German citizen, he had to go to the Ausländerbehörde on three separate occasions just to get his residency permit.

He suspects that, despite his training, other factors were also at play: “You want to find a job and you want to work, but your type, your hair colour – I sometimes think it influences how they perceive you,” he muses. “I think that sometimes people look at us as if we are terrorists.” Companies may also be hesitant to hire refugees due to uncertainties about how long they can remain in Germany, although language is also a key factor.

This is what a lot of refugees are going through right now, they’re just sent to very low-paid, very bad jobs where you need no education at all.

Like many of his colleagues, Hussein discovered the Devugees programme through the Arbeitsamt, or job centre. After completing the four-week introductory course, he began the programme on May 1st. He feels confident that Devugees will help him find a job, especially since he’s seen how in demand jobs are in the tech and startup scene. “It’s a great way for refugees to enter the German market and also have a good salary,” he tells us. The international environment and general openness of the tech industry also appealed to him: “In the IT industry, they give you the opportunity to get a job not based on what you can say, but what you can do.”

Leaving Lebanon wasn’t an easy choice, but living through years of war made Hussein want to give his family a better life: “Sometimes in the summer, there was no water. Also, no electricity. They’d cut it for six hours, so you needed to get a generator.” He recalls the 2006 war in Lebanon, when bombs would shake his bed in the middle of the night: “You didn’t feel safe. You didn’t have water, you didn’t have money; also, you didn’t have security.”

He continues: “This is the reason why some people leave their countries. I don’t want to be on the street and one day, boom. I want to stay, for my son,” he says, proudly displaying a picture of a smiling boy on his phone. “If I think about what it would be like if my son and my wife lived in my country and went out shopping and were killed. What would I feel? How would I explain it? That I had the opportunity to stay in Germany and instead I stayed in Lebanon? I would feel bad that I didn’t protect my family in order to stay in my country. I don’t want to stay in my country if I will die.”

In the IT industry, they give you the opportunity to get a job not based on what you can say, but what you can do.

Despite the majority of Germany’s refugees having fled war and conflict, the response to the refugee crisis has not been overwhelmingly positive in politics or the media. Hussein offers his perspective: “The people here just need more time to accept it … but maybe in the future they will be more comfortable. But actually, I wonder if the situation were reversed, and a German came to my country, maybe I would be the same way. I don’t know. Because I think this is human nature…” He pauses, reflecting on his own experiences, “Maybe it’s because of the culture. They think, ‘He won’t understand us, he won’t be like us, so there’s no need to let him learn.’”

Johannes suggests that the international and multicultural tech field and thriving startup scene in Berlin is an ideal starting point for integration: “We’re working very closely with the startup scene here because we think it is a very open-minded environment.” Additionally, English is the company language for many startups, which is also attractive for refugees who struggle to communicate in German.

As a government-subsidised job-training programme, or Weiterbildungsträger, the courses at Devugees are paid by the job centre. This means that the participants can concentrate on their education without financial burden, something Hussein is grateful for: “I think that it’s good that the government here gives you a chance. I think that if you go to another country, you won’t find anywhere that will pay everything for you until you find a job.” This also means that both refugees and non-refugees alike can take part in the programme. There are even some Germans taking part, further aiding the mission of integration.

However, it proved a struggle at first to get the Arbeitsamt to see the benefits of web development programmes, something that they traditionally don’t have much experience in, and to convince them to invest in training instead of sending the refugees directly into low-level jobs. “This is what a lot of refugees are going through right now, they’re just sent to very low-paid, very bad jobs where you need no education at all,” says Johannes. “These people, sometimes they have very strong backgrounds, we have people who worked for oil companies in Iraq, and now they’re sitting in their apartments in Moabit with four other people, and no one knows what skills they have, and so they’re sent to very low-income jobs. And we’re trying to change that for the better.”

Other issues come up frequently, from finding vegetarian options where the courses are held, to the discussion of whether or not to have classes on Fridays, when Muslims typically observe prayers. The road to integration is long, and not without its challenges.

Yet Johannes seems undeterred, and feels that refugees will prove to be a necessary asset for Germany’s future. “They will release the tension that the job market is already feeling,” he says. “Zalando alone will hire 1,500 new web developers in the next few years, and where are these people coming from? The blue-collar jobs of development are what are needed. You always need people who do rocket science in companies, but not 100 of them, just 10. But how do you find the other 90?”

Hussein agrees. He believes that most people have the simple dream of living a happy and safe life, no matter where they are: “The most important thing is stability. Most people, even in an authoritarian regime, they just want to watch their tomatoes grow, do you know what I mean?”

Find out more about the Devugees’ programme and mission at devugees.org