Two weeks ago, Make School successfully completed the Beirut Summer Academy — a free program for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. And recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with the instructor of the program, Carole Touma. Carole is a Make School alumna from the early days of our summer program. She’s gone on to graduate in Computer Science from Princeton University and has interned at both Facebook and Google. Most importantly, because her father is Lebanese with Syrian roots, she is cognizant of many of the issues facing the region as a whole, as well as Lebanon itself.
For context, Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of Syrian refugees in the world; there are currently 2 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, constituting roughly one-third of Lebanon’s total population of 6 million. These refugees cannot work — but they can enroll in schools and universities, as well as volunteer with NGOs in the area. And so that’s how young refugees like those that attended our Summer Academy try to make the most of their situation—by getting an education so they have some hope of escaping their current circumstances.
Even so, there’s never a surety that their university education will lead to employment opportunities. Equipping students with skills that are in demand, like software development, is one way to help them market themselves better. Whether these skills give them a chance to move out of Lebanon for a career as a developer, or to be able to work remotely on contract, learning programming — through offerings like the Summer Academy — increases their chances of future success.
I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to run a program for students like those in Beirut. They have lost so much, have to work so much harder than most of us do in the United States, and yet are so incredibly motivated to build successful lives for themselves. The following is my conversation with Carole about the program, what she learned, and what we can all take away from her experience.
Komal Desai: How did you come to teach the Beirut Summer Academy?
Carole Touma: I had been traveling in Asia for a couple months and when I got back, I heard about the opportunity and that Make School needed help. Being half Arab myself and having visited Lebanon multiple times provided me with the ability to connect with the students more easily.
Komal: Can you give me a sense of what the students were like? How was the group selected?
Carole: Make School partnered with Jusoor, a Syrian, expat-created non-profit organization that works to create programs for Syrian refugees in places including Lebanon. Over 165 students applied to partake in this program, and the final student count was 11. Needless to say, this course was in high demand. Asma Alabed was our program manager, and she helped a lot with selecting the students and allowing the program to run smoothly — plus, she spoke Arabic, which was a huge help because my Arabic is minimal.
Almost all of the students are originally from Damascus — they left in 2012 when the war was ramping up. Beirut is the closest non-Syrian city, so this is why there is a large population of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The students are mostly working on getting degrees from the Lebanese International University and live in Saida — which is about 1.5 hours away from the center where the Summer Academy was held. They were commuting to the program three hours daily!
The students also had a huge range of ages and experience levels (they ranged from ages 16 to 29), so that was interesting to try to manage. It was clear very early on that they were fascinated by how to get hired at companies like Facebook and Google because ultimately that’s what they dream of doing. So in addition to the software and product development I was teaching, I also advised them on how to go about applying to, interviewing at, and getting hired by international tech companies.
I want to emphasize that these students are ultimately no different from the ones you share your classroom with. They are very goofy, lively, and we played a lot of icebreaker games during our breaks — oh, and they are obsessed with Adele. Their current situations are very difficult, yet somehow they walked in every morning with big smiles on their faces, ready to learn.
Komal: What did the students build?
Carole: So with a program that’s only 20 days long, most students were just able to create first versions of their products. But the ideas were all there and the apps were really cool. I’ll just highlight a couple here. The first one I thought was incredible is called Save Me. Save Me is a platform for people who want to serve as blood donors or want to be recipients. In Lebanon, if I need to get blood, I have to WhatsApp my network — who then WhatsApp their networks — and hope that someone is willing to donate, which, clearly, isn’t so efficient. Save Me matches people by blood type and gives you an easy way to contact the willing donor. The product uses Firebase as a backend service.
Another one is called Smart Reminder. You can input the date, time, and location of an appointment and the app essentially figures out when you should leave to get to your meeting on time. It then gives you a reminder 10 minutes before you should leave. Smart Reminder relies on current traffic levels and uses the Google Maps API, Firebase, and the local notification infrastructure of Apple itself. Right now the app is only functional for driving, but the student wants to be able to build features for public transportation, walking, and other modes of transit.
After this program, most of the students have one more semester at their university and they’re then going to be applying to jobs in Europe (they wrote off coming to America because they’re afraid they won’t be let in). Learning to build apps — especially iOS apps, that require knowledge of the Swift programming language — was a huge step for them to be able to market themselves. Overall, the students were able to create code that could impress potential employers at tech companies — and that was the goal. We had an intimate Demo Day, just for ourselves, where I had the students pitch their apps. Then I asked them the kinds of not-so-fun technical questions they might get at job interviews.
In the end, these students are working so hard because they want careers that are meaningful. They say to me, “I don’t want to just earn enough money to survive. I want a career. I want to live.”
Komal: How do you feel about the time you spent in Beirut with these students?
Carole: Being in Lebanon and working with these students, I have learned that defending them and their dreams isn’t enough — active advocation is required. Simply serving as a rebuttal won’t provide these students with the help they ultimately need. I now have 11 new friends who are so much more than any reductionistic stereotype or statistic.
If anything, what I want to impart with this interview is a realization that there are students who are, in fact, way more motivated to learn about computer science than many of us here are. By volunteering with Make School or other organizations that Make School partners with, we can directly impact the career choices these students have. At the end of the day, we all collectively want the same things — better futures for ourselves and our families. And so we should be able to empathize with these students and donate our time and/or money.
Malcolm X famously said ‘Education is the passport to the future’ and the reality is that so many students don’t actually have access to that passport.
A special thank you to all the members of our community who helped us provide laptops to these bright, ambitious students. We are grateful for your support as we continue to embark on initiatives like the one in Beirut.