Utah Envisions Refugees as Savvy Programmers

Lehi • Dusenge Raheli would like to join the robotics club, but a babysitting gig watching her 3-year-old nephew eats up her afternoons.

So, the 16-year-old attended a Saturday coding event hosted by Adobe Inc. and Utah's Refugee Services Office. Raheli, whose family fled conflict in Tanzania about seven years ago, hopes she can eventually gain the technology skills she will need to make a light-up toy for the young boy.

"It's cool," she said, but added that the digital savvy will also be useful in the long run, after she becomes an attorney. "I might use it in my job."​

Raheli is exactly the kind of student that Utah hopes to attract to a growing program for aspiring coders — ones who also have started a new life in the Beehive State.

Studying web design is a good option for refugees, who often resettle with only modest means, said Stephan Jacob, co-founder of Salt Lake City company Cotopaxi.

"Coding is a skill set that doesn't require formal education," Jacob said, "but it opens up the door to high-paying jobs."

The web developer began teaching a course to about 60 students this fall in Salt Lake City. Two incoming Cotopaxi interns began as his students.

On Saturday mornings, the group of high schoolers and young adults meet to review the basics of computer science. They made a special field trip this weekend, joining Raheli and hundreds of schoolchildren at Adobe's glass-walled compound in Lehi.

Students on Saturday worked together in programming sessions, Minecraft games and even yoga and coloring classes. It's part of a national day of computer coding, led byCode.org.

Even though Raheli is not yet in Jacob's class, she said she would jump at a chance to learn the material. She sat with classmates as they watched a video showing President Barack Obama, education advocate Malala Yousafzai and the pop singer Shakira tout the benefits of learning to code.

"It's pretty awesome," said Niraj Sanyasa, 14, of Salt Lake City, who says he will someday be an engineer who builds cameras.

For Sanyasa, the Saturday seminars are more than a one-time treat. He is part of the pilot group of 60 refugees in Jacobs' web design class.

Sanyasa's Nepalese community requested those lessons, along with Sudanese and Bhutanese leaders, said Michael Pekarske of the Refugee Services Office.

They have good reason. As Utah's technology and manufacturing corridor grows, employers are hiring. And they are looking to refugees to fill jobs, said Asha Parekh, refugee direct services manager at the Department of Workforce Services.

Parekh's agency is in the early stages of a partnership connecting adult refugees to aerospace companies in Utah.

Even if newcomers are not fluent in English, they still can excel at coding languages such as HTML, Parekh said. They also have much more intrinsic qualifications, she added, after overcoming persecution, violence and possibly famine.

"They are people who have a strength of character that the rest of us don't have," Parekh said,

After talking with other web company representatives Saturday, Jacob believes more will sign on to teach a spring version of the weekly class that lasts three months.

Already, the Saturday event and the longer-term course have translated into more corporate involvement that helps refugees feel at home in Utah than ever before, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office.

"We're all a-twitter," he said, "because this is the beginning of something that could be huge."

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Salt Lake Tribune Sat, 12/05/2015 - 14:47