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In Berlin, a Syrian Student Teaches Refugees

BERLIN—Mouaz al-Qudsi, a Syrian who came to Germany on a student visa, was completing his degree in computer science and working as a software engineer when he and his colleagues began wondering how they might help the one million refugees pouring into Germany.

“There was this moment when a lot of refugees were coming to Europe and people were asking what to do,” said al-Qudsi, who works for a startup. “You had entrepreneurs and people from the technical side who heard a lot about refugees, but they didn’t know what to do, and they wanted to get involved.”

He and a friend created Refugees on Rails, which connects entrepreneurs and tech workers with refugees who are interested in learning more about programming and software engineering.

“When I came here, I wanted to get into business, and I know how hard it is to get into these things,” said al-Qudsi. “Plus programming is a useful skill.”

Refugees on Rails first began holding classes in September of 2015. The response has been strong, he said.

“We offer a space where people can share their experience and get to know each other in these classes,” he said. “There’s a lot of people with tech backgrounds [coming to Germany], but they don’t know how to get into the industry or how to find work, so it’s a good opportunity for them.”

“There’s also a lot of newcomers who just want to learn something new,” he added.

Currently, Refugees on Rails has over 25 volunteers—many from startups in Berlin and across Europe—and more than 120 students, said al-Qudsi. Sponsors from the tech industry, like Amazon and GitHub, helped them to get classroom space and donated laptops.

“The experience has been exciting,” said al-Qudsi. “I give classes twice a week, and I get to meet volunteers and students from different places, and we exchange experiences. Teaching classes is a lot of fun, too.”

Refugees on Rails doesn’t advertise other than on social media, so most students come to them by word-of-mouth or through their friends.

“It’s the best way, I think, to attract more students, because it shows the students are having fun and benefiting from the classes,” he said.

The students are determined to make the most of their classes with Refugees on Rails, he added.

“Most of the students attending the classes are really motivated to get something out of it,” he said. “A lot of them are waiting to get their refugee status, or a residency permit, and they don’t want to sit around and do nothing. This is a really motivating environment for them.”

Some of the students were skilled enough to get unpaid internships at German technology companies, but their lack of residency and work permits prevents them from finding permanent work, al-Qudsi said.

He is familiar with the challenges faced by the students. Originally from Damascus, he came to Germany in September of 2012 on an Erasmus Mundus grant to study computer science at the Technical University of Berlin.

“When I left Damascus, I planned to go back the following year and finish my degree, but during my time here things were getting worse in Syria,” he said.

Al-Qudsi was able to extend his Erasmus Mundus grant for an additional year. He then sought to extend his stay at the Technical University.

“I had to reapply to be a regular student here, and that was a complicated process, getting approval for courses I took in Damascus,” he said. “Every university has its own system, and it’s a lot of bureaucracy. It takes time to figure it out. Studying in German is hard, too, because it’s not your mother tongue.”

He is scheduled to complete his degree in computer science this year.

During his studies, al-Qudsi worked at several Berlin-based startups, including online real estate agent WunderAgent, whose co-founder Weston Hankins eventually became his partner at Refugees on Rails.

“He has a lot of experience with these projects,” said al-Qudsi. “It was really cool working together at this company and starting the NGO together.”

Hankins was grateful to be involved. “We were very happy to count on Mouaz’s support,” said Hankins. “He’s great to bounce ideas off of and adds very valuable insights to each discussion.”

As a Syrian, Refugees on Rails took on an additional significance for al-Qudsi. These students were fleeing the same violence that he has been lucky to avoid.

“It’s important to get in touch and see what problems Syrians and others are facing,” he said. “It gives you a different perspective on the problem. When you meet students, they tell you that they are waiting for their residency permit or some other papers. I was waiting here to get recognition too. I know how hard it is sometimes.”

So far, Berlin has been a great place to work on this project, he said.

“The startup scene in Berlin is a great place to learn,” said al-Qudsi. “There’s a lot of creativity and exploration happening here. And companies are small, so I’ve had the chance to work directly alongside founders and co-founders – that wouldn’t happen at a big firm.”

Al-Qudsi says he plans to stay in Berlin after he finishes his degree and help Refugees on Rails expand further. Their first chapter in the United States is currently being established.

“If there are volunteers in a new city and they want to give classes, we can help them set this up by getting them laptops and classroom space,” he said. “We are always happy to get more volunteers and more students, and I hope it will gain more resonance. I think it’s a good way to bring people together.”
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