Refugees find hope in tech learning

Updated: 2016-02-23 08:54

(HK Edition)

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A private institution is helping refugees in Hong Kong to acquire or brush up their IT skills so that they are better equipped to find a livelihood when they move on. Nan-Hie In reports.

Peter, as we will call him, gives little thought to the future now. He's a refugee, who has lived without hope for most of his life. "After my experience (back home), it is not easy to dream or hope," he said.

The 31-year-old fled the Central African Republic to escape violent conflicts between Christian and Muslim militias, raging since 2012. "It was so dangerous that you couldn't do anything. You couldn't walk around (without risking safety)," he recalls. Peter hadn't planned to come to Hong Kong. He washed up here, in 2014. He is not asking to stay but for now it's his safe harbor. "Hong Kong is a place that has peace. It is so important that you have peace and security, where you can walk anywhere you want to at any time," he says.

Peter recalls a time when he would make detailed plans for the future. He earned an IT degree in Congo, got a job in the IT department at a bank in the Central African Republic and eventually earned enough to buy land in his hometown. Then violence engulfed the country and everything changed. "I cannot hope again. I cannot dream again," he says. He focuses on what is here and now because he has lost his vision of "tomorrow". Life and the future lie in God's hands now, says the refugee.

He is learning coding and other facets of his chosen field at the BSD Academy in Central. It's a program designed for people like him, offering the promise of a career when they are finally rehabilitated. "If you want to become better in the future you have to learn in the present, so I learn here and try to understand (these skills) so that in the future I can get a job," he says, adding the new skills he is learning will open more job opportunities wherever he travels next.

Hong Kong's approach to refugee processing is laborious. With more than 9,000 refugee claimants living here, it is likely to take years for all of them to be processed. They are not eligible to work. They get a stipend of HK$1,500 a month from the government, and a little more to buy food and utilities. Some of them benefit from the donations offered by NGOs or religious groups.

Free training

Chris Geary, co-founder of BSD Academy, a private tech school founded in 2013, is familiar with the plight of refugees here, since the time he and his wife participated in an art program for refugees.

It occurred to Geary that he could help these distressed people by helping them to pick up skills they could use to support themselves when they moved on for resettlement elsewhere. Geary and his partner Nickey Khemchandani decided to offer refugees free training in technical skills to improve their future prospects.

Siva Somasundaram, a Sri-Lankan refugee, was their first student. Somasundaram had lived in abject poverty in Hong Kong for three years. He excelled in his course work immediately after getting started on it. Geary says the young man had a natural aptitude for technology. Within five weeks, the 25-year-old had acquired back-end coding knowledge of HTML, CSS, Word Press templates, plus Photoshop editing, given he had a passion for photography.

When Somasundaram learned he would be re-settled in the US, his teachers guided him to self-learning programs online, so he could continue tech training after being relocated. The Sri-Lankan relocated to San Francisco, where he did freelance jobs building websites. Eventually the first refugee graduate of BSD Academy was hired full-time by a tech company. He is a software support engineer there, earning over $2,000 a month.

Geary was overjoyed when he heard his first refugee student was on his way to a safe and stable life. "We are extremely excited and quite proud of the fact that we created something meaningful for someone like him," he says. The incident motivated the team to improve the program and help even more refugees.

The academy established its 50-hour Refucoder program, to immerse refugees in the broad field of tech fundamentals so they could discover what they like and where their talents lay. Once refugees are given their next resettlement destination, they progress to the second leg of the program, Refugeek where they advance their skills with reference to where they are going next. They are guided to additional self-learning resources so they can continue their training.

Peter is still in the early stage of his program. For 10 weeks he has been absorbing coding skills on HTML, CSS, PHP and so forth. He is also learning about project management, branding and marketing of digital projects. When he finishes, he will be a certified Web-programmer.

Tech transformations

BSD Academy has outposts in Hong Kong and Bangkok with plans to open in Philadelphia, USA, and developing partnerships in Europe and the Middle East. "It would be incredible to see tech education be a conduit to change the global attitude to refugees, to see them more as an asset than a burden," Geary says.

In the digital era, there is ever increasing demand for tech skills in the work force. Refugees, armed with relevant skill sets, can fill a gap in human capital. "I'm not seeing refugees as 'refugees' but as human beings who have the talents to fulfill a need (in various industries)."

Geary's thoughts sound especially poignant in the context of the biggest exodus of displaced people since World War II. The number of people fleeing the high-conflict regions in the Middle East and North Africa is 60 million, according to UNHCR's annual Global Trends report.

Border controls across Europe have tightened and politicians from the EU to the Asia Pacific have applied increasingly strict policies to stem the tide of people entering their borders.

In Hong Kong, the perception of refugees could also be much improved. "Before they became refugees, some of those people had qualifications and they gave their best in their countries," says Peter. He insists that while there are bad apples in a basket, there are good refugees who can benefit their host society. Hong Kong people's attitude to refugees, he says, is largely negative.

Peter focuses on learning as much as he can today, to build a better tomorrow. "I am a refugee in Hong Kong but I cannot stay like this. I have to do something," he says. "If you make your present good, your future will be good," he adds. "I plan for the present and when I wake up, I thank God as tomorrow I could die."

Refugees find hope in tech learning

 Refugees find hope in tech learning3

BSD Academy equips refugees with technical skills to improve their future prospects. provided to China Daily

 Refugees find hope in tech learning

Refugees can fulfill the demand for tech skills in the work force in the host society.

(HK Edition 02/23/2016 page10)