In a sea of asylum seekers, Hack Your Future has created a lifeline for some refugees and is trying to educate the society that welcomes them.
In 2015, Gijs Corstens saw an opportunity to help. The situation for asylum seekers in the Netherlands was bleak. They couldn’t work. They had no opportunities. The Dutch government was overwhelmed, struggling to secure basic housing for them. Preparing them for integration was a distant goal. He knew that many refugees ended up in jobs far below their potential, if they found employment at all.
Corstens recognized there was an opportunity. Many asylum seekers were highly educated and highly motivated. Dutch technology companies needed talent. He wondered, why not train asylum seekers to program and connect them with employers? Why is no one doing this?
So he did it. Starting small, Corstens wanted to see what would happen if he put five refugees in a room with some programmers. He gathered some Dutch programmer friends, and started with five students.
They met in person every Sunday in Amsterdam. During the week, the students and teachers worked together online. After two months, Corstens and his team saw progress in the students. After six months, they were ready for the job market.
It worked. Hack Your Future was born.
From inspiration to replication
Those six months of training can be life changing. Take Syrian refugee Sarea Alkebaly, one of Hack Your Future’s first students. With low language skills and only a general IT background, his profile didn’t suggest future success. But he was determined. After graduating from Hack Your Future, he got a job as a front-end developer intern. In his spare time, he built a web app for people in poverty in Amsterdam to connect to local services. Thousands of people a month now benefit from his efforts. In a short time, he went from being in need, to helping those in need.
To date, Corstens and his group of forty dedicated volunteer teachers have taught over 120 people. Seventy-five have graduated. Some have found internships, while others have been hired directly. On the drop-out rate Corstens says: “People sometimes find out that coding is not for them. That’s typical of any coding school. At the same time, refugees have gone through many things. They may have families still living in unsafe places. This plays a role in drop-out rates. It can be too difficult to focus on coding when you are worried for the safety of your family.” Hack Your Future is improving its selection process, and expects the drop-out rate to decrease moving forward.
Others have begun replicating the Hack Your Future model. In London, the project is called Code Your Future. This September, a Greek organization will open a full time coding program. It’s also been replicated in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Iraq. Corstens and his team have open sourced their curriculum to encourage their model to spread.
Employment is important, inclusion is key
Hack Your Future’s goal is to train programmers and help them find employment. Corstens says the project is also focused on something bigger. A long-term “problem is unemployment among refugees, which has been high. After five years, many are still not working and participating in society. Over time, we will have more refugees. Their children will look at their parents for examples of success. As a society, we need refugees to have social mobility. We need them to achieve high positions in society. Without that, we risk having generations with no social and economic mobility.”
For long term success, Hack Your Future helps students not only land but also retain a job. The program orients students to local tech work culture, communications and customer service; the soft skills needed to thrive in the industry. Hack Your Future has built a network of employers to tap into this new talent. Some employers see hiring a refugee intern as the right thing to do, but have quickly found it’s also a solid business decision.
Refugee is just a word
In the current political climate, refugees have a stigma that makes Dutch communities either feel pity for them or threatened by them. For true inclusion to begin, Corstens believes receiving communities need to change their thinking.
Interested in changing the narrative around refugees, he says it is important that Hack Your Future calls the refugees students. He wants Dutch society to focus on where they’re going, not where they’ve come from: “The way I see refugee migration, it’s neither positive or negative. It’s how you make it work will determine positive or negative. People either glorify refugees or criminalize them. They are just like us, they just have a different story. They’re human. Some will be great, some normal, some bad, just like in any society. We want to spread a specific message: treat them as human, not special. Make them as normal as possible. That’s what they need. That’s how they’ll integrate and be included in our society.”
The result? Hack Your Future created an employment model that works, and can be replicated anywhere. Corstens and his dedicated volunteers have also created an opening for social inclusion and connections between refugees and their Dutch communities. It might just be their most important long-term contribution.