Tech skills could break down barriers to employment for Iraqi youth

Coding bootcamps and programming courses are giving young Iraqis and refugees a way to work remotely

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Zheekal Makwan, 23, fidgets with her smartphone as she perches on the edge of a plush sofa in a hotel lobby in Ainkawa, the Christian neighbourhood of Erbil. She is petite and looks younger than her years, but her ambitions belie her youthful appearance.

“I want to be one of the women in Kurdistan that starts her own company alone,” she says, over the chatter of other hotel guests.

liMs Makwan is what some people hope the future face of Iraq's labour market looks like: young, motivated and hungry for new ideas.

She is one of 40 young Iraqis, including eight women, who graduated from a five-month coding bootcamp in 2018 run by Re:Coded, a US-registered nonprofit organisation focused on training conflict-affected youth in tech skills.

Since then, she has started developing her own app to help young people in Iraq find and connect with employers, tackling one of the biggest barriers for young people entering the job market.

After years of conflict, youth unemployment officially stands at around 20 per cent in Iraq, although United Nations figures place it closer to 33 per cent. Corruption and nepotism continue to plague the job market, closing off opportunities for many who lack contacts to secure the few available roles.

In October 2019, frustration bubbled over into large-scale protests as thousands of mainly young Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad and cities across the south to protest a corrupt political system and call for the government to address soaring unemployment.

A month later, the demonstrators claimed a major victory when former Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned and was subsequently replaced by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who has vowed to address the demands of the protesters. But the struggle is far from over.

Despite a steady stream of international funding and humanitarian aid trickling into the country, the government has done too little to confront the precarious position of the country’s youth.

This is where smaller organisations like Re:Coded have stepped in.

In the summer of 2014, at the same time as ISIS was taking over Mosul, Alexandra Clare, 31, co-founder of Re:Coded, travelled from New York City to Erbil to conduct research for her masters thesis on the radicalisation of children.

Observing the poor access to higher eduction and the lack of high-skilled job opportunities, Ms Clare and her partner, Marcello Bonatto, 36, decided to help fill the gap by launching coding bootcamps and tech training for young people.

Alexandra Clare and Marcello Bonatto launched Re:Coded in Erbil, Kurdistan to provide tech training and coding bootcamps to young Iraqis. Courtesy Re:Coded

Many development organisations focus on training their beneficiaries for low-skilled and often-unstable roles, such as tailors, welders and barbers. “They are not actually thinking through how you will give someone a skill that will enable them to access longer-term employment and grow to be an economic asset for the country that they are in,” Ms Clare said.

A big advantage of teaching tech skills is that jobs can be done remotely. For countries with depressed economies and thousands of refugees and displaced persons, including Iraq, Syria, Libya and even Greece, this is a game changer.

“We do see a big opportunity for refugees, especially since they are not always in the same place — the whole refugee digital workspace can be done remotely,” says Inga Niere, Projects Director ICT for Youth at Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Re:Coded’s main funder.

When Ms Clare first arrived in Erbil during the height of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, the idea of creating an organisation to counter extremism seemed more relevant. “You had a terrorist organisation 80 kilometeres away and you had people without any access to higher education or secondary education,” explains Ms Clare.

Marcello Bonatto with students taking part in training programmes run by Re:Coded. Courtesy Re:Coded

“I had been looking at what drives people into extremist groups and thinking that there are so many youth who will be a target for recruitment if they are not given meaningful education or employment opportunities — access to purpose in some way beyond purpose which is reliant on radicalisation.”

It took two years to set up the programme before it officially launched in May 2017. They have since conducted 20 bootcamps across Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Yemen, the latest of which were held over Zoom in Baghdad, Sana’a and Istanbul.

“Being able to get a skill where you can work online can be hugely transformative for people,” Ms Clare continues.

It's especially important during a pandemic. As of March 15, Re:Coded shifted its entire model online. “We were quite lucky in the sense that the curriculum was already online, but people were still coming physically to our locations three times a week as part of our bootcamp program and those classes shifted to Zoom,” explains Ms Clare.

Surprisingly, she says, “retention has been higher since Covid, and I think it’s because people are not having to commute, so we’ve been able to reach people in different locations…in areas where it would have been harder for us to work previously.”

It’s not just in Middle East countries that humanitarian aid is incorporating technology skills training. With just over 115,000 asylum seekers and migrants stranded within its borders and a government unable to manage the added burden of thousands of vulnerable people, Greece has been the perfect breeding ground for innovative approaches.

Code on the Road (COR), a Greek registered non-profit, delivers business entrepreneurship lessons to participants’ mobiles, cutting out the need for classroom space and laptops and circumventing conflict.

With the current round of funding from the US State Department, COR is focusing on delivering business entrepreneurship and software training to women and girls in Greece and Jordan. This month, it also launched its Entrepreneur 2 Entrepreneur program, which teaches women from all over the MENA region how to successfully launch a business online.

Code on the Road delivers a training session to migrant women and girls. Courtesy: Code on the Road

COR also focuses on research aimed at building protective measures against rightwing extremism. “One of the ways to counter polarisation is through labour market integration and building a healthy society — the chance for everyone to have access to equal opportunities and social justice is what helps build resilience,” says Aya Burweila, its Libyan founder.

Yet, many will argue that coding and tech skills are still niche in countries like Iraq, Libya and much of the Middle East. As Ms Niere explains, it’s about the balance between low-skilled and high-skilled job training.

“We have to consider that there are still more traditional types of work and job placement and that this is one field out of a very big field of job opportunities.”

One of the main struggles for Re:Coded in Iraq is that tech is still a very new field, and although there are active members in the tech community, it’s a long way from being a widely recognised career path.

“You have to really kickstart a generation by changing mindsets [first],” says Ms Clare. “It’s definitely not something that is going to happen overnight — building ecosystems to be able to transform economies is the long-term game.”