How a Finnish start-up is teaching refugees to code
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Most refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Finland often get stuck waiting for months or years in reception centres for their claims to be processed. They are often cut off from Finnish society and have nothing to do. Two entrepreneurs saw wasted possibility. That’s why they started Integrify, a programme to train refugees and asylum seekers in coding, one of the most sought-after professions in Finland.
UPDATE (November 29, 2018):
This article has been edited at the request of the man who participated in the Integrify pilot programme, who asked for anonymity and for the removal of several details after he received racist messages online.
Finland has also been affected by the mass arrival of migrants in Europe. Thousands of refugees and migrants have crossed Europe to reach Finland, which has traditionally offered generous benefits. Last year, more than 32,000 people claimed asylum there.
But life can be tough for Finland’s newest arrivals and it remains hard for many to integrate. Some Iraqis actually became so disenchanted with the lack of economic opportunities, the difficult language and the cold, dark winters that they signed up to be flown back home on the dime of the Finnish government.
Trainees work during Integrify's pilot program to teach asylum seekers coding (photo from Integrify).
“We have smart and motivated people trying to set up new lives, but the system is failing them”
Daniel Rahman watched as the government and society struggled to deal with the influx of migrants and refugees. A self-described “serial starter of start-ups”, Rahman got an idea, which he developed with business partner Niklas Lahti, CEO of software development company Nord Software.
The refugee crisis really hit Finland last fall. It was a desperate situation, it was -30° and reception centres were overfilled and people were living in tents. The government announced they were looking for private companies to step in and provide services. In December, I founded a company and got a government contract to open an asylum centre, where I now house 60 asylum seekers and refugees.
From the get-go, I wanted to help people integrate into Finnish society. The way that asylum centres are operated on a grand scale isn’t working, especially in terms of integration.
People get placed in asylum centres in small villages and they end up being stuck there for months, sometimes even years with nothing relevant to do. Some people get passive and unmotivated. I heard of a person who was stuck in a centre for seven years. It doesn’t make sense.
“We’re making integration happen”
Even once their papers are in order, it may take them years to find employment. Moreover, when they do get jobs, many highly educated refugees and asylum seekers end up in low-skill jobs. Personally, I think it is a disgrace and a wasted opportunity. We have smart and motivated people trying to set up a new lives, but the system is failing them.
So, we decided to flip the situation and teach asylum seekers a skill that is highly in demand. There are between 4,000 and 5,000 job openings in programming in Finland right now. In the beginning of the year, I launched Integrify, with my partner Niklas Lahti, to train refugees and asylum seekers to code. Our programme, Integrify, is mostly funded by tech companies and start-ups, who look at our participants as a pool of recruits. But it is also a question of social responsibility. We’re making integration happen.
Another advantage to our programme is that it sidesteps the Finnish problem. Finnish is a difficult language to learn, but the lingua franca of the tech world is English. The only real requirements to participate in our programme is to have a good command of English and to be motivated to do the work.
We are currently running our pilot programme with five participants. The next step is to open a bigger centre where we’ll be able to train between 100 and 200 people. In the future, we’d like to train thousands and expand our programme to mainland Europe. We are moving forward fast!
“This programme is a big shortcut to my life”
Samer (pseudonym) is a participant in the pilot programme.
I come from Iraq. I came to Finland because I heard good things about the education system. I wanted to go to university here and study. But when I arrived, I was in a centre for five months while my papers were processed.
That’s when Integrify came to our centre to present their programme. About 25 of us applied. I think my command of English helped me. When I was accepted into the programme, I knew my luck was starting to change.
The programme started on April 1. We relocated to the capital from our asylum centres and the founders set up a nice apartment for us in the centre of Helsinki [Editor’s note: The programme provides housing and the training for free. The asylum seekers are given a stipend of 316 euros a month from the Finnish government]. In the reception centre, you don’t meet Finnish people. Now, we are in a big city and you can just meet people in the streets. We’re working in a building with other companies and we are able to talk to them and see how they work. We’ve been able to visit Helsinki and participate in Finnish cultural events.
But the best thing is that I’ve already had two job interviews and two days ago, I got a job! Since the beginning, I realized this programme is a big shortcut to my life.