April 4, 2018 / 9:03 AM / 6 months ago

FEATURE-Refugees code to reboot their lives in Britain

LONDON, April 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As soon as he was allowed to work in Britain, Ethiopian refugee Sentayhu began applying for jobs, confident his experience as a web developer back home would land him a tech industry role.

But month after month, the 35-year-old heard nothing back.

“I was searching for a job on every website but I couldn’t get it,” said Sentayhu, who fled Ethiopia for political reasons and declined to reveal his full name.

“I felt (down) in the dumps,” he said, after arriving in Britain in 2015.

Unemployment is high among refugees in Britain due to language and cultural barriers, lack of local work experience, and, in some cases, discrimination, refugee charities say.

Nearly 15,000 people were granted asylum in Britain in 2017, the interior ministry said, in addition to some 119,000 refugees already living in Britain at the end of 2016, according to the United Nations.

“We are seeing people who have significant skills and experience from their home country but who struggle to rebuild their careers,” said Andrew Lawton, the Refugee Council’s head of integration services.

DESTITUTE

Frustrated and eager to move on with his life, Sentayhu contacted the Refugee Council, which referred him to Code Your Future, a free coding bootcamp for asylum seekers and refugees run by volunteer mentors working in the tech industry.

There, his life changed.

After finishing the six-month course in 2017 - where he learnt computer programming, resume writing, and how to do job interviews - he was offered a position as a software engineer for a global news publication within a few months.

“I couldn’t believe it. When the offer came, I couldn’t sleep that night. I was so excited,” Sentayhu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, after speaking with prospective refugee students at a pop-up classroom in a central London office.

“My life is changing now. I’m not stuck anymore,” he said, one of 75 people who have graduated from the bootcamp since its inception in 2016.

Sentayhu is one of the lucky ones.

Until they have refugee status, asylum seekers in Britain are not allowed to work and rely on a weekly allowance of about 38 pounds ($53).

When they are recognised as refugees, with access to regular benefits and the right to work, they have 28 days to vacate their government-provided accommodation.

This “move on” period has left many refugees falling through the cracks, politicians and charities say, arguing the timeframe is unrealistic given language barriers and the paperwork needed to secure rental properties or employment.

The British Red Cross said it distributed food and clothing to about 15,000 destitute refugees and asylum seekers in 2017.

The Refugee Council’s Lawton said companies should consider work placements and job schemes for refugees to help them bridge the gap and gain local work experience.

“This is a diverse population that can contribute to their organisation. They bring a wealth of skills and experience from their home country and some different perspectives that can help with creativity,” he said.

“LIKE A DREAM”

Recognising the lack of opportunities for refugees, German Bencci said he started Code Your Future to give refugees practical web skills, while helping them network with tech industry insiders.

“If you ask refugees what it is they want most in life, it’s just to have a job, to have a place to live, to have security,” said Bencci, who manages more than 200 volunteer trainers across London, Glasgow in Scotland, and Manchester in northern England.

But it can take some convincing for refugees to believe they can get work after the programme, he said.

“People are like, ‘Can I really get a job after six months? Is this really possible?’ And then suddenly they find themselves in a job - and it’s like a dream,” he said.

For Iranian refugee Mona Azami, learning how to code has been more than a dream.

Though the former graphic designer struggled to find a job in her field in Britain, the 38-year-old said she is confident she can now secure work as a web developer.

The mother of one said the experience has also helped her break from traditional gender stereotypes.

“In Iran, I could only be a full-time mum who looks after children. But here, I’ve got the chance to find myself, to spend some time for myself to do something that I really enjoy,” said Azami.

($1 = 0.7120 pounds)

Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories

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