A reflection on Re:Coded’s journey to date by Co-Founders Marcello Bonatto and Alexandra Clare
It was the summer of 2016 in Iraq. The day, July 18, was the hottest in the country that year. The government had declared a national holiday because 55 °C (131°F) was just too hot to handle — even for Iraqi standards. That was also the day Re:Coded started its first bootcamp — a pilot program teaching 30 motivated individuals the art of web development. It just so happened that the generator at our training center had literally blown up a few days before. So there we were: no electricity, unbearable weather and the belief that everything was going to be alright.
We have come a very long way since that inglorious summer day. Last month marked Re:Coded’s one year anniversary as an organization. It was a date for celebration as much as it was for reflection. We started Re:Coded because we believed that young people affected by war should have the opportunity to enter the digital economy. With millions displaced in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, job opportunities were — as they always are — few and in the informal sector, where the pay is low and exploitation is high. That was particularly concerning for young men and women with a university degree and a dream of a better tomorrow.
But we did not start Re:Coded only because we wanted to teach conflict-affected youth how to code and help them find jobs. We did it because we believed they could also become leaders in their communities. And that, is the most powerful multiplier effect. As war-shattered economies started to get back on their feet, we wanted to train the generation that would drive these countries forward through technology.
One year in and the founding mission of Re:Coded has never been more true and stronger. Since May 2017, we have launched 4 coding bootcamps in 3 cities in Iraq and Turkey, training more than 120 youth how to code. We have also doubled down on our commitment to grow the technology ecosystem in cities that we work in. We have brought together hundreds of technology enthusiasts for two social innovation hackathons in Iraq and Turkey, started the first Google Developer Group in Erbil, and organized dozens of speaker sessions and coding workshops.
We were also determined from the get-go to imprint on our DNA what has become a core part of our mission today: bridging the gender divide in technology. We are proud to make our cohorts as gender balanced as possible with 40% female participation, on average. We have also shone a light on inspiring female technologists by organizing two Women in Tech and Entrepreneurship Summits in Iraq and running the first hackathon with a focus on gender equality in Istanbul.
The winner of the hackathon was a team led by a bright 18-year-old from Syria who was a fellow in our coding bootcamp in Sanliurfa, Turkey. Aware of the lack of psychosocial support for Syrian females with PTSD and depression, Reem came up with the idea for a mobile application that will connect these women to Arabic-speaking psychologists. She is now fundraising to start developing the application and will employ other Re:Coded fellows in this important project.
While we believe Re:Coded can do more than helping our fellows find a job, employment is and will continue to be one of our main priorities. Getting a job — any job — is not an easy task, particularly where economies have been depressed by years of conflict. In Erbil, for example, you can count in one hand the number of tech startups. That’s why we take a more individualized approach to employment, working together with our fellows to seek opportunities they desire, according to the state of the local economy.
Since we graduated our first two cohorts in Erbil and Sanliurfa in February and March, 85% of students seeking employment have secured a technical role. For some, that is work as freelancers for local and international clients. Freelancing is a powerful career path for someone who has been displaced as it transcends boundaries. It is also a win-win model for refugees and host countries: freelancers earn globally, but spend locally.
Freelancing has allowed our fellows to double or triple their income, as they receive payment in strong currencies like the U.S. Dollar, Euro or the British Pound. This is the case of Mahmoud, a fellow from Syria, who teamed up with two other Re:Coded students to develop a meditation app for a client in the United Kingdom. In Iraq, Wisam, a mechanical engineer who was forced to leave his hometown Baghdad due to violence, helped a social enterprise, Taqadam, to develop its first image annotation app. Three months later, he is now the CTO of the organization.
As we start our second year, our team is visualizing what the next 12 months will look like. Re:Coded has grown incredibly fast since its foundation, a feat only possible because we give heart and soul to the mission we embraced. We will continue to grow for one main reason: we believe no one should be left behind in the digital revolution.
Re:Coded trained 120 young people in one year. We now want to multiply this number by three or four. We are refining our model to scale fast, but sustainably. That means opening up training opportunities for youth in other cities in Iraq and Turkey — both online and in-person. We are also looking at places like Yemen and Egypt, where a large young population is hungry for coding training. And we will continue to be a key player in building the tech ecosystem in the places where we work in.
We have recently opened our own office and training space in Erbil, where over 100 students will learn mobile and web development, freelancing, and entrepreneurship in the next 6 months. On one wall, painted in big and bright black and blue letters, a quote says: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” That’s what our fellows will continue to do, changing their world one line of code at a time, bootcamp after bootcamp.