Technology for Social Good – UNICEF skills up refugee kids for a tech future


UNICEF helps young refugees to learn programming skills that they can carry with them as they rebuild their lives.

To describe the futures of children and young people currently living in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan as ‘uncertain’ would be a terrible understatement. Most have already survived unimaginable traumas; some have been separated from their families or sent away from home for their own safety.

In addition to the psychosocial support they desperately need, many refugee kids are bored and have missed several years of education. According to UNICEF, only one student in Azraq passed their high school-level Tawjihi exams in 2016. To give an idea of the scale of the problem, consider this: at the most recent count, there were 35,729 people in the camp at Azraq and 57% of them were children. That’s over 20,000 kids.

In some respects, things may be looking up. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the current academic year saw the opening of new primary and secondary schools to guarantee access to education for all children in the camp. By April this year, some 10,200 students were enrolled at the schools.

It’s a start. But as they look to the future, it’s pretty unclear where these young people will end up – and British businesswoman Emma Sinclair MBE is on a mission to make sure that, whether they eventually make it home to Syria or find a safe home elsewhere in the world, as many as possible have in-demand skills to build a more secure future for themselves.

And what does the world need? Programming skills.

Azraq’s Innovation Labs

So this month, Sinclair has launched a crowdfunding initiative on behalf of UNICEF UK, the target of which are ‘Innovation Labs’ already in place at Azraq.

As Sinclair witnessed for herself on a recent visit to Azraq, these are providing support, seed funding and training in highly sought-after digital skills to young would-be coders, but currently lacking resources. The crowdfund runs for three weeks, from September 18 to October 6th.

But why a crowdfund – and how easy was UNICEF UK to convince this was a good way to raise money? Says Sinclair:

Conventional routes to fundraising are great, but there’s a whole generation of people out there who like to give in different ways, in new ways. Crowdfunding is a way to get funding for a specific project nailed quickly.

UNICEF does amazing fundraising, but this represented an opportunity for them to try something new, in order to engage with the tech entrepreneur community. There wasn’t a lot of convincing to be done, given that this is something I really wanted to do, that I was happy to front, and that I truly believed in. That made it a lot easier.

Work underway

A note here on Sinclair herself: she’s a serial entrepreneur and was the youngest person in the UK to take a company public. That was Mission Capital, when she was 29. She now considers herself a ‘full-time techie’, as the co-founder EnterpriseAlumni, an alumni and retiree management platform, and was last year made an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

On her recent visit to Azraq, she saw first-hand some of the inventions coming out of the Innovation Labs in their early-stage form. These included a movie projector made with cardboard, tape and an old magnifying glass, and an air conditioning unit made from a scrap of solar panel, loose wires, a tiny fan and the battered base of an old cool box. The Innovation Labs, Sinclair observes, are one of the few places that boys and girls are able to mix at the camp and share ideas. (The new schools there teach in two shifts, one for boys and one for girls.)

The newest Innovation Lab at Azraq plans to up the game with a fleet of PCs. And the crowdfunding campaign is designed to add to its resources, says Sinclair:

There’ll be a curriculum for the teaching of technical skills – in engineering, coding, programming,and creative media. But the Labs will also be spaces for kids to get together, develop their ideas, get some seed funding and potentially solve problems in the camp. The money is to implement a syllabus, staff the Innovation Labs, and make sure there’s some more hardware in there. Resources are key because kids are desperate to learn but have no resources. It was so easy for me to pick this project.

The kids themselves will also get a say in defining what else they need, she adds:

UNICEF itself will buy a lot of software and hardware, but these kids themselves will know what they need, so they will have the chance to test the technology products that UNICEF is thinking of buying.

A room with computers, says Sinclair, is a lifeline for these young people. She’s predicting a queue outside the Innovation Labs once they’re fully up and running.

The Innovation Labs will teach valuable life skills to these kids that they can use, wherever they end up settling, because right now we have no idea how, when and where they’ll resettle. This will give them skills they can carry with them anywhere. It’s about making sure they have a future.

Image credit - UNICEF

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