A group of Berlin-based tech entrepreneurs wants to help the country's refugees find jobs by giving them coding lessons for free. Armed with over 190 laptops, dozens of motivated students, 50+ volunteers, teachers and mentors, the non-profit organization Refugees on Rails hopes to promote what they call “Smart Integration” – or Integration 2.0.

Organizations in Germany and across the globe, including those in Cologne, Paris, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki and even Madagascar have expressed their interest in setting up similar initiatives as well.

Anne Riechert, the organization's co-founder, spoke to TEDxBrussels about the project and her views on the "Deeper Future". 

1/ How did you come up with the idea of equipping refugees with coding skills for free? 

On the last day of Ramadan I was invited to take part in the celebration at the refugee center in Buch (Germany). Here I met Muhammed a kind software developer from Baghdad. He told me how he would have liked to continue his studies in Germany, but was unable to code in his spare time, since he did not have access to a computer. Instead he would visit the local library for a few hours every week to improve his skills. That same evening I had dinner with my friend Weston Hankins, a serial entrepreneur in Berlin. I told him the story, and we spoke about how Germany and in particular the startup scene needs talent to grow.

Then it just clicked. Could we not build a program, which would help refugees improve their skills while they await documentation to get approved and help them get jobs afterwards? We thought that at the same time, this initiative could help the startup and tech sector gain access to motivated, hard working talent. 

To test the idea I wrote a Facebook post to ask my community what they thought of a coding school for refugees. The feedback was incredible. Ahmet Emre Acar was one of those who commented on the post. He had had a similar idea in the past, but didn't take it further. Hence, we decided to join forces all three and get started. We are a perfect combination of competencies as well. I have a background in corporate social innovation, Weston in technology and Ahmet in building higher education programs. 

Refugees on Rails

Refugees on Rails

2/ Is this coding school for refugees more about capacity building or integration?

They go hand in hand. The constant thoughts on the minds of the refugees we are working with are 1) How they can be allowed to stay in Europe 2) How they can find a job so they can support themselves and their families. But getting a job is not easy for anyone and especially not for refugees. Even with a permission to remain in Europe, they are in competition with locals and EU citizens, they may not speak the language fluently, there might be cultural differences and their local diplomas may not be accepted. 

That is why we decided to focus on the tech scene and in particular on coding. In the startup landscape, talent, hard work and good ideas often matter more than a diploma. It is also a very international scene, the culture is diverse, and English is widely spoken. This helps refugees breaking down some barriers for entry. 

We are strategically working with mentors, teachers, corporate accelerators and co-working spaces that are part of the startup scene in Berlin, to ensure that the refugees get a supportive network that can help them find an internship or a job after the course is over. Finding a job is not just about “what" you know, but “who" you know. I would like to call what we are doing "Smart Integration" - or Integration 2.0. 

Refugees on Rails

Refugees on Rails

3/ What should the role of startups and citizens be in current and future crisis?

I wrote my master's thesis in Japan about "open social innovation processes", in other words how we can use technology to engage as many people as possible to come up with new solutions to existing social problems. I experienced this first hand in my work with openIDEO in Silicon Valley and more hands on in the recovery work after the 3-11 triple disaster in Japan.  People were actively and efficiently sharing knowledge through technology to solve very concrete local challenges. 

Sadly, NGOs often lack sufficient understanding of how modern technology and business innovation processes work. They are deficient of some really impactful tools in their toolbox. To bridge this gap between startups and NGOs I founded Berlin Peace Innovation Lab in 2013. The community is now close to 1400 people in Berlin only. I can only conclude that there is a keen interest from both sides to learn from each other and to collaborate. 

Refugees on Rails/Copyright: Refugees on Rails Facebook page

Refugees on Rails/Copyright: Refugees on Rails Facebook page

4/ What about the students you ‘recruited’ from refugee homes? Can you share some of their stories?

(The question first included the term “refugee camps”. Anne asked us to call settlements “refugee homes” as this is what they are to the refugees. Or should be. She said that when she visits them, she respects their private space, as if she was visiting a friend’s home.)

One of our students is a young business entrepreneur from Syria, who started several restaurants in Aleppo before he and his family had to leave. Now, he is on his own in Germany, hoping to be reunited with his brothers in Sweden or Holland. His dream is to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates; to build a business empire. His buddy is from Egypt and used to work in the airport and in the hospitality industry. He has a background in hotel management. 

Another participant is a 33-year-old mother from Syria. She arrived to Germany with her 6-year-old daughter and her husband. She studied 4 years of English literature. We also have other students from Eritrea and Somalia, some with a lot of IT knowledge, others with basic computer skills. 

5/ What actions would you urge to turn the influx of refugees into an opportunity rather than a crisis?

Co-creation is essential for me. We have to involve both ends of the spectrum in the innovation process; otherwise the ideas are likely to fail in the implementation phase. Secondly, I think it is vital that we build more early intervention programs like what Agentur für Arbeit has done in Berlin. It helps refugees build their capacity while their papers are being processed, improving their chances of getting jobs and smoothly integrating afterwards. 

Last but not least, I think it is vital that we meet as human beings and get to know each other. Refugees come from all around the world and all have their unique stories, strengths and weaknesses. We have to get to know the human being behind each and every individual and not just see them as a group (refugees), or even worse as a number.

First computer donated and digitally wiped clean/Copyright: Refugees on Rails Facebook page.

First computer donated and digitally wiped clean/Copyright: Refugees on Rails Facebook page.

6/ What message would you like to send to the society of the deeper future?

Believe in your dreams - then get to work and bring your friends along!  We need idealists who can imagine a better future for all. Change does not come easily, go for it, and give it your best shot. If you like what you do and you can convince other good people to join you, then work does not feel like ‘work’ anymore, it feels more like ‘life’.  

Finally, I believe that we need to find better financing models to support social entrepreneurs, so we can lead more sustainable lives and continue to go out and do good, without having to worry about paying the next rent. 

What do you think of this project, and how can we create better solutions for the deeper future? 

Interview by Bibbi Abruzzini.