Refugees & Tech

How the UK tech scene can do their share to help

A couple of months ago two engineers from We Got POP, a London based start-up innovating the global film & TV production process, spoke to me about their volunteer work with refugees. I was immediately interested and impressed that these young developers were spending their Sunday afternoons teaching refugees from Syria and other war torn countries how to code.

Other than being an investor in POP it was also due to a personal experience that this captured my interest: a year and half earlier I had spent a couple of weeks in a refugee camp in Samos as a volunteer. Despite its proximity to the border (one can literally see Turkey which is only one km away) over the past few years the passage has taken hundreds of lives. People arrived exhausted, frightened, wet, cold, hungry and desperate. I was shaken up by this experience but also impressed to learn how volunteers managed most of the tasks in the camp, such as distribution of food and clothing.

Back in England, I was ready to do my part in this humanitarian crisis. Not just the usual emotionally led debates with friends and family but actually do something that mattered. A year passed, and I had achieved nothing to stick to my intentions. To be fair, it wasn’t that easy: other than donating money I felt like there weren’t really any obvious ways I could help.

The example of Amit and Kash, the POP developers, proved that there are different ways to make an impact.

The program these two engineers volunteer for is called CodeYourFuture. Modelled after an organisation in the Netherlands, it was the initiative of Venezuelan born, Germán Bencci, who managed to bring this project to life in the UK. The concept is simple: a six-month free web development training programme, taught by professional developers offering their time and expertise to guide students through the most popular web technologies. The face-to-face, hands-on weekend classes are complemented by online support and several hours of weekly assignments and group projects.

After CodeYourFuture’s first course finished in April this year, We Got POP was the first UK start-up to hire two of their graduates: Ansi from Tamil Nadu and Ahmed from Syria. Kate McLaughlin, CEO of POP, commented: “I was delighted when I heard about the work Amit and Kash were doing with CodeYourFuture and I sat down with them to see how POP might be able to help. We have hired two of the course participants as apprentices; and it’s early days but so far it is going really well. It’s a win-win-win as far as I am concerned. We are able to do our bit, however small, for the refugee crisis; we can support our engineers in the valuable work they are doing; give an opportunity to access the job market to two very worthwhile individuals; and the business also wins as we have sourced two smart apprentices who we hope will become valuable contributors moving forward.

The engagement of POP is a perfect example of how start-ups can work with refugees in a way that benefits both sides: Refugees eager to work and companies desperate to hire engineers. This is also a great example of how the UK tech scene can make a social impact.

Unlike the US, I find the European tech ecosystem surprisingly apolitical and disconnected from social matters. (Yes there was a loud cry of frustration over Brexit, though mainly born out of an economic rationale). There are however a small number of investors who have already offered to help. One of them is Christian Hernandez, partner at White Star Capital who provided excellent guidance and a number of valuable introductions which made a big difference in shaping the organisation.

The CodeYourFuture initiative is still in its infancy and Germán is hoping to run multiple courses a year across the UK. So If you are an investor or a tech start-up keen to support, get in touch because contrary to what many believe, as I did, there are easy ways to help.