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CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

Hack Your Future, Belgium’s coding school for refugees

Belgium needs IT workers, while disadvantaged migrants need the chance to access skilled jobs. A programme that trains refugees and asylum seekers in web development aims to help.

Hack Your Future, Belgium's coding school for refugees
Trainees at work in a Hack Your Future class. Photo: Lien Arits

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

According to the Belgian Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, 23,443 people applied for asylum in Belgium in 2018. Yavuz, a journalist from Turkey, is one of them. “I was forced to leave my country for political reasons and I moved to Belgium to join part of my family. Brussels is the centre of Europe but doing the same job in Belgium was from the beginning impossible, since I didn't speak French or Dutch,” recalls Yavuz. 

“I then decided to apply for the IT training programme Hack Your Future Belgium and gain some experience as a developer to create something new.”

Hack your Future Belgium was launched in Brussels in 2018, following the example of an earlier project in Amsterdam that started in 2015 with an open-source curriculum. The project is funded by public money – the Digital Belgium Skills Fund offered by the Belgian Federal government. It has the goal to help fill the gap between the shortage of people working in the IT sector in Belgium and newcomers who are looking for a job or would like to improve their skills as developers.

Most of the participants – 63 percent – are asylum seekers or refugees, though the programme is open to any migrant with limited access to education or the job market. All teachers are volunteers who work in the IT sector.


Hack Your Future trainees. Photo courtesy of Lien Arits

The programme offers a free eight-month course in web development, with lessons held in English on Sundays, usually at a centre above Brussels' central train station but currently remotely.

“We chose to do the classes on the weekend so that people can follow language and integration courses or work and take care of their children but, at the same time, do our weekly assignments. We want to be as inclusive as possible,” explains Lien Arits, communication manager of the programme.

Candidates do not need any previous IT knowledge or equipment of their own. They are selected via a technical assignment and an interview to assess their motivation and whether they have an intermediate level of English. This process aims to ensure a variety of backgrounds.

“Highly qualified migrants apply for our programme, but they miss a favourable cultural environment,” says Manon Brulard, founder of Hack Your Future Belgium. “Ninety percent of people who participate in the programme have a degree before their arrival – 50 percent have a master's degree – but refugees still have a cultural and linguistic gap after the end of the classes.

'There are companies who see this gap as a risk factor, because they aren't familiar with newly arrived employees. We try to facilitate and give companies the opportunity to improve their corporate social responsibility.”

One of Hack Your Future’s strengths is the coaching method. Students are expected to study the assigned preparatory works that cover the theory they need in order to dive into group exercises on Sundays. Coaches are there primarily to support groups, not to teach the material.

Nadia Ferreira, a coach at Hack Your Future Belgium and a Portuguese UX designer who has worked in the industry for ten years, says: “There is a multilevel collaboration. Students to students and coach to students. In one-to-one sessions we talk not only about the programme but I help students to create their own CVs and portfolio and give them advice on the career and Belgian job market.” 

She highlights the motivational aspects of the programme: “We guide them on an individual basis only once they have questions. Applicants don't need to have a degree in computer sciences, but they have to show that they are willing to learn and put into practice their acquired knowledge.”

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The programme, after two years of activity, has had good results in terms of enhancing the participants’ IT skills and giving them a chance to work in the sector: “85 percent of participants found an internship, job or go back to long-term studies. We estimate that 60 percent of our students get a stable job right after,” says Manon.

Refugees usually need a minimum of three months to find an internship and navigate the cultural gap, “then there is a governmental programme in the Flemish region that funds internships for six months and afterwards people can be hired,” she explains.


Hack Your Future trainees. Photo courtesy of Lien Arits

Hack Your Future seeks to encourage women to apply since there is a large gender gap in Belgium's IT sector workforce: according to the European Commission, in 2019 only 17.7 percent of people employed in the field were women.

Akbel, a 30-year-old woman from Turkey, didn't have any experience in coding before she applied for the programme. It has been a life changer for her: “Two months after the end of the classes I have found a job as a front end developer.”

She appreciated the learning-by-doing approach of the course. “As a mother of two I was able to organize myself and study alone. Coaches were always there not to teach us but to guide us,” she says. The strength of the class was also the mentoring part, adds Akbel: “Every three weeks a person from a company was visiting us and explaining how the job market works. This was useful to enlarge our network, test our job interviews skills and overall improve our self-confidence in looking for a job.”

Floor Verhaeghe, coordinator of CESSMIR (Centre for the Social Study of Migration and Refugees) at Ghent University, points out that “integration is not only a socio-economic phenomenon, but also has to do with being able to feel a sense of belonging to a community”.

Hack Your Future Belgium created that sense of community, according to Yavuz: “Being a refugee in a new country is hard: I didn't have friends nor a professional network. The programme gave me the opportunity to meet with people. The most important thing for me was not just participating in the classes, but it was the community of people that Hack Your Future has created.”

But things are not perfect and the project still has work to do in terms of inclusivity, as Manon points out: “We would like to have refugees within the team in order to understand better their needs.”

Lien adds: “The project still has work to do in terms of capacity building. We are now focused on the technical skills but shifting towards a better balance between hard skills and soft skills, as we experience the importance of the latter everyday. We also want to deepen our job coaching module at the end of our program, to guide newcomers towards integration through that first professional experience.”

Akbel agrees on enhancing soft skills. She says she would add “open door moments where students can get to coaches and speak about other topics not related with IT”.

Lorenzo Di Stasi is an Italian freelance journalist and video producer based in Brussels. He is fond of untold stories from Eastern European countries, migrations and social issues. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.

MORE IN THIS SERIES:

Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.

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