This Woman Is Giving Refugees Real Hope—Through Hackathons And Code

 Refugee Code Academy students in Phoenix.

Refugee Code Academy students in Phoenix.

When a refugee arrives at a camp they are promised four things: food, shelter, water, and medical care. Alyssa Palmer believes that there should be a fifth promise: Education.

Right now, only 22 per cent of refugee adolescents attend secondary school, compared to a global average of 84 per cent. And only one percent of those that do go on to attend university, compared to a global average of 34 percent, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Palmer, a former co-founder of Refugee Code Academy, is working to address this gap between a refugee’s professional potential and the limited educational opportunities that are being made available to them.  

Palmer is quick to acknowledge that she’s never faced the education gap herself. The daughter of American diplomats, Palmer spent her childhood bouncing from country to country. Through Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, Palmer had everything she ever needed to live a full and successful life; all while poverty was always just an arm’s length away.

Proximity to poverty left an indelible mark on Palmer and the global refugee crisis pushed her desire to serve refugee communities into overdrive. Doing something felt mandatory, but she didn’t want to work within the typical confines of how refugee's needs are typically portrayed. Food, water, shelter, and medical care are necessary and important, but she says, focusing only on that “turns people into a stereotype.

Not because of anything that organizations are doing wrong,” but because of how it’s being shown through the media. Refugees, she says, are most often shown as a tax on resources, but not depicted as an incredible contributors, in and of themselves.

When Palmer met Omron Blauo, an entrepreneur with a Masters in bioengineering, she joined him in his efforts to address the refugee crisis in a way that looked further down the line than immediate relief. What, they asked, is one of the most sought after professions in the world that can be done from almost anywhere in the world? The answer, of course, is coding.

The ability to design and build worlds within machines is itself empowering, but the professional opportunities available to those who can string together command sequences are even more so.

The team tested their hypotheses in the refugee community in Phoenix, Arizona. They organized hackathons and code academies, and after fine-tuning and a few pivots, they headed to Tanzania.

In the midst of the Burundi genocide that saw Burundians fleeing persecution, they set out to convince government agencies in charge of overburdened refugee camps to let them come in with computers and a coding curriculum. But the answer wasn't always "yes"—not by a long shot.

On one of their first tries, Palmer shares, “we had a situation set up with [an intergovernmental agency] and, after months of working with them and getting through all that red tape, we thought we had their support.” Her team made it all of the way to the refugee camp before they ended up needing to replan their efforts due to numerous obstacles.

For all the challenges the team faces on the ground in East Africa, the greatest ideological pot shots have been taken from home. “Right when we started getting momentum...Trump put the month of travel ban against refugees and Muslims, and I remember feeling like no matter what I do, I have a politician in place who’s telling the rest of the country that these people don’t matter.” And yet, she keeps pushing towards providing refugees with access to high-level education and real professional prospects.

Refugees spend an average of 20 years uprooted and in need of assistance, frequently in camps that meet their basic needs but that often aren’t preparing them to re-enter ‘normal’ society. That doesn’t mean that they should have to wait almost two decades to build a life, a business, or a career. Education, Palmer says, is a promise that there is a future possible beyond the camp’s walls.

As Blauo puts it, "In a world where the solutions to the refugee crisis are multifaceted, we provide hope in the form of a tangible skill set. We're leveraging the current growth of technology as a tool to address pressing socio economic and humanitarian issues."

To all the people who challenge their work as unnecessary or a waste of resources, Palmer has a reminder. We all live in the same world. You might not see the refugee crisis on your street corner or in your city, but East Africa is just an extension of your backyard.

If we don’t address the long-term while handling the immediate, it’s inevitable that the crisis is going to catch up with us.

This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on August 29, 2017, to reflect changes in Alyssa Palmer's role.

Words: Pippa Biddle
Photo: Courtesy