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.
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.