A New Tech School In Berlin Is Training Refugees To Code

The first 49 students–from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq–are learning to fill a labor demand in the German economy.

On a visit to a refugee shelter in Berlin in the summer of 2015, social entrepreneur Anne Kjaer Riechert happened to meet a software developer from Iraq who hadn’t been able to code for two years because he no longer had a laptop.


“She thought, okay, we can just ask people to donate old laptops, because that’s what all of our friends have at home,” says Özlem Buran, who works with Riechert. “But that didn’t really seem sustainable.”

Riechert and a group of friends came up with a different idea: a tech school for refugees that connects students with computers, desks at a co-working space, and mentorship from people embedded in the local tech world who can help them find jobs.

The school, called ReDi, opened at the German Tech Entrepreneurship Center on February 21, with 49 new students–mostly refugees from Syria, but also Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Tunisia, and Lesotho.

For those with little experience, there’s a basic version of the course. “It’s for people we like to call Facebook literate–who have actually no idea other than using social media or WhatsApp,” says Buran. “So they are familiar with technology, but never been creators, just consumers.”

For a few months, they’ll meet in small classes with volunteer developers, learning skills like Ruby on Rails and Javascript. By the end of the course, the beginners should be ready to take internships. “We’re not naïve enough to believe that they’re going to be developers that create the next generation of Facebooks and Twitters,” says Buran. “But we’re training them to become business intelligence analysts, and front-end developers, and testers.”

Refugees who have an IT degree, or several years of work experience, can go through the course mostly to meet people in the Berlin tech scene who can help them connect with a job. “For the ones who have coding experience, they’re only lacking a network,” she says.


Right now, there are roughly 47,000 unfilled tech jobs in Germany. Europe as a whole expects to have another 750,000 tech jobs by 2020. The new school aims to help fill that demand.

It’s also a way to give asylum seekers a way to productively fill time for the months that they aren’t legally allowed to work. “When people come to Germany the average time they are spending getting their legal papers, for an asylum seeker, the average time is seven months,” says Buran. “For people from Syria, it’s a little bit less; for people from Afghanistan, it’s a little bit longer. But we’re trying to fill in that kind of gap when they’re not allowed to work and not allowed to do anything else.”

They also want to help Berliners see how refugees can help the local economy; that’s partly how the project began. “We were wondering about how to react to what people call the refugee ‘crisis’ in Europe–where we see human potential,” she says.

All Photos: Ben Fuchs

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.