From the February 2016 issue of The Rotarian
“The world sees Germany as a country of hope and chances,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared last September, as refugees fleeing war and conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere were streaming into her country in unprecedented numbers. As of November, 792,000 people had made the journey to Europe by boat since the beginning of 2015, with the majority ending up in Germany. There, they receive food, clothing, medical attention, and shelter while they wait for their claims to be evaluated and the government to decide if they can stay.
Watching the crisis unfold in Berlin last year, Anne Kjaer Riechert saw a need – and an opportunity. Riechert, originally from Denmark, studied at International Christian University in Japan as a Rotary Peace Fellow in 2010-12 and helped set up Stanford University’s Peace Innovation Lab in Berlin the following year. “What we are trying to do is to bring people working in innovation, technology, user interface, start-ups, entrepreneurs – people with a lot of ideas – together with NGOs and people with social causes,” she says. “In April, when the refugee crisis was starting, we did a lot of interviews with refugees and social workers and brainstormed ideas.” One of the projects that resulted was Refugees on Rails.
The name is a twist on Ruby on Rails, a simple coding language used for building websites. In recent years, so many tech companies have launched in Berlin that there aren’t enough coders to meet the demand. When Riechert and two fellow tech entrepreneurs saw that refugees had nothing to occupy their time while they waited for their asylum claims to be processed, they realized that teaching these new arrivals how to code could help solve their industry’s labor issue while giving refugees an in-demand skill that could help their chances of success as they rebuild their lives in a new country.
Refugees on Rails launched a used-laptop donation drive, which brought in hundreds of computers for refugees to learn on. As word of the project spread throughout the start-up community, Riechert says, the enthusiastic response convinced the organizers that their idea should be expanded to at least three more German cities with large refugee populations.
Last fall, they set up a pilot class to get feedback on what worked and what didn’t, and to find out what skills the students most wanted to learn. The format will combine online educational modules and working groups led by mentors from the city’s start-up scene. Refugees don’t need a tech background to enroll. “It’s enough if you are able to use Facebook and the Internet,” Riechert says. Students will learn to build real websites that address challenges faced by refugees, such as an Arabic-language guide to using public transportation. “We want to be as practical as possible,” she explains. “At the end of the program, we want the students to do internships with start-ups or tech companies in Berlin, because it’s really vital for them to build a network. If you come as a refugee and you don’t have the network, it’s difficult to find a job.”
One of the first refugees to enroll was Muhammed, a 26-year-old from Aleppo, Syria. After graduating with a degree in business administration, in the midst of the war, he fled his home to avoid being conscripted into the Syrian Army. “I had to get out before I was killed or had to kill my people,” he says. He followed his brothers to Europe, and he enrolled in Refugees on Rails last November while waiting for his asylum application to be processed. He believes that knowing how to program will be valuable if he opens a restaurant or decides to apply for a job in the tech industry. Plus, he says, “Refugees on Rails will help us to improve our future and integrate us in the community. I hope we can be useful to our new community so as not to be a burden.”
The project has benefited from the public endorsement of Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges, a member of the Rotary Club of Bonn-Süd-Bad Godesberg. Höttges praised Refugees on Rails in front of the thousands of participants at Berlin’s Startup Night 2015 and urged people to donate their laptops, saying, “It’s a great innovation; it’s a great attitude as well. … I think we should all do something for the people who are coming into our country.”
Helping refugees build successful lives reflects The Rotary Foundation’s mission “to advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace by improving health, supporting education, and reducing poverty,” he told The Rotarian. “Teaching refugees Ruby on Rails can give them a better basis to care for themselves. ‘More skills, better chances’ is an old saying. If these skills are combined with an ability to network, with determination, and with flexibility, that should result in success. … The newcomers could play a vital part in Germany’s and Europe’s economies.”
For Riechert, the project is a natural outgrowth of the values she embraced as a peace fellow. “My world is really not as a Dane, where I’m originally from, but as a global citizen,” says Riechert, who also spent a year in Australia as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. “And the people who are coming here, who are escaping from terrible situations in their home countries – I feel a great responsibility for taking care of my future friends and colleagues.”