Code for success: Hong Kong computing school trains refugees to work in IT
NGO RefuGeek teaches practical tech and design skills to asylum seekers so that they can better their lives. Its first graduate is working as a systems engineer in the US
More than two years after moving to the United States, Sivasuthan Somasundaram still misses life in Hong Kong – even though his time in the city was spent as a refugee.
The 25-year-old Sri Lankan has certified as an IT systems engineer and now travels across the country from Seattle to New Jersey on contract jobs. But he might have been struggling in low-paying jobs in the US if it weren’t for the free training he initially received from BSD Code and Design Academy, a computer training school in Hong Kong with an offshoot in Bangkok.
Somasundaram is the pilot student in a programme that BSD initiated to teach practical technology and design skills to refugees so that they can better their lives. It has since been formalised as a non-profit venture, RefuGeek.
BSD co-founder Chris Geary got the idea of offering such training to refugees after taking part in a charity coding event with Christian Action in 2012.
The NGO serves disadvantaged communities in Hong Kong and China, particularly displaced people. Among other things, Geary learned that Christian Action runs classes to give refugees useful skills for work in housekeeping and warehousing, which started him thinking about how his company might help them through technology.
“When refugees get resettled, one of the first things they need is a job, and one of the growing industries is technology,” Geary says. “We thought this would be an incredible opportunity because it’s within our resources to support, and we can build a curriculum and even train volunteers [to teach].”
There’s a shortage of technology professionals so the jobs pay well, he adds. “They don’t require degrees, just talent.”
Geary and BSD co-founder Nickey Khemchandani decided to identify some “raw talent” and help give them a better future; Somasundaram was their first trainee.
Originally from Jaffna, the Sri Lankan had fled the bloody conflict between the country’s majority Sinhalese and ethnic Tamil minority that cost up to 100,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
“I left when I was 14, and it was very scary because it was the first time I left my parents and country on my own,” Somasundaram recalls.
He made his way to Thailand and arrived in Hong Kong 18 months later. The initial period was difficult, “but I spent time hanging out with other kids and we got along”, he says.
Somasundaram was a regular at the Christian Action office, where classes and sports activities were organised for young refugees:
“I spent most of my time there, helping other refugees who couldn’t speak or write English, helping to translate or write up their cases.”
His application for refugee status was approved in 18 months, but Somasundaram had to wait another five-and-a-half years in Hong Kong before leaving for the US.
It was in the few months before resettlement that Khemchandani began working with the Sri Lankan to set up a simple website showcasing his talent in photography and love of cricket.
The assignment presented some challenges, as Somasundaram hadn’t had much formal education, let alone knowledge of advanced technology.
“He hadn’t written code before but he had problem-solving skills, which is so important,” Khemchandani recalls. “I’d say, ‘Tell me how a website works. Tell me the answer’. And he would go to Google and start self-learning. Sometimes he didn’t know what to do, but if he saw something cool, he would try to build it.”
They began using HTML mark-up language to build a mobile-friendly website, and before long the Sri Lankan had also picked up use of the WordPress content management system. In the process he also learned to edit photos and to design a site that was both user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.
“Coding is like music; you have to feel your heart in it,” Somasundaram says on a Skype call from Michigan. Although he did not find it very easy, he says “anyone would love learning from Nickey because he makes it easy to understand for a person at any level”.
After resettling in his new country, Somasundaram quickly learned to be self-reliant. “In the US you don’t get any financial support from the government – you have to support yourself. So I worked as a warehouse supervisor and even an Indian Restaurant Association quality control manager, inspecting the quality and temperature of the food.”
He continued his IT studies in the evenings and became a Microsoft-certifiedsystems engineer after nine months. Currently working freelance, he mainly undertakes contracts to help companies build their servers. He found it difficult to get work in the US at first but says things are now getting easier. “When you’re in IT, being Asian helps in finding a job.”
BSD’s experience with the Sri Lankan made Geary realise their RefuGeek initiative should be set up as two levels.
The first, dubbed RefuCoder, provides 50 hours of basic instruction for people with little or no coding experience. This is intended to give refugees the fundamental tech skills so that they can earn some money by developing simple websites for online clients.
The second, RefuGeek, identifies candidates with aptitude for problem-solving and helps them refine their tech skills to take on full developer roles so that they can get a job or make a living as freelancers once they are resettled.
Refugees need to know how to freelance to get a foot in the door in their new country, Geary says. The livelihoods of independent technologists, artists, artisans and writers depends on the quality of their work, and building a reputation and network. If someone moves to a place where no one knows who they are, the programme gives them the basics to pick up tech skills independently, and present a portfolio to show what they can do.
“There’s a huge number of tools online to help people make money on the internet,” Geary says.
His vision is for the RefuCoder and RefuGeek schemes to be accessible online so that anyone can help refugees learn to code and to find employment.
“BSD is perfectly willing to share our curriculum online and anyone can have it for free,” he says. “We cannot teach hundreds of people, only 10 people at a time, for 50 hours over six months. It costs very little to run.”
Moreover, machine language is universal, so candidates do not need to have a good grasp of English.
BSD partners with Christian Action, which identifies refugees in Hong Kong interested in the coding initiative.
“We’ve had one group that don’t use computers much so we spent a lesson on how to use Macs. We provide accessibility,” says Khemchandani.
BSD says they have trained 13 people so far, including three under the RefuGeek programme; staff volunteer time and expertise to teach the refugees and the company pays for the trainees’ travel to and from classes and occasional lunch.
The manager of humanitarian services at Christian Action, Justin Murgai, says it’s not hard to find people to join BSD’s courses, with about 30 people on the waiting list.
“We are talking about expanding the programme and maybe have small groups with a trainer so that they can spend more time one on one,” Murgai says.
There is a mix in the age range and experience, as some refugees were previously in the IT field.
Geary is delighted at how well Somasundaram has done since settling in the US:
“Siva [Somasundaram] started as a freelancer and has worked for many companies. It’s pretty cool. Everyone loves to see an underdog really succeeding,” Geary says. “He’s spent years going through a lot of bad things and now we see him go over there and be able to get into a place and find stability, having waited for years, and now has financial security. Coding helps them get back into society communicating with people and using technology.”
The BSD co-founder has yet to find any group running similar schemes to help refugees, but says they are in discussions with some church groups and NGOs.
Somasundaram is grateful for the opportunity although he misses Hong Kong.
“Now I have the freedom to move around and can make money. But, believe it nor not, the US cannot compare with Hong Kong when it comes to safety and lifestyle,” he says. “The US is a big country with lots of options so there are choices to make.”
Like his mentors, Somasundaram has expansion plans: he hopes to take up US citizenship and is arranging for his fiancée, a girl he has known since childhood, to join him.
At the same time, he says, “My friends and I have an idea to start an IT consulting agency and hire the graduates from Chris’ academy”.