Tech skills bring new opportunities for Yazidi youth
Courses in web development and computer programming offer hope of a better future for young people struggling to find jobs in Sinjar.
Calaf Eabra is fascinated by languages. He speaks five – Kurdish, Arabic, English, Russian and a bit of German. The 22-year-old is also fluent in four computer programming languages and in his spare time he studies data analytics, or uploads videos on the Internet of Things (IoT) to YouTube. Given a chance, he could create a system that waters plants remotely or build a smart security camera from scratch – anything that mixes programming with electronics.
None of these skills, however, are reflected in his job as a security guard at a glass factory on the outskirts of Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “In the US or Europe, two of these tools would get you a job… but in Iraq there is no market, that’s why I work at the factory,” says Eabra, who passes long hours on duty considering the finer points of coding as he opens the gate for delivery trucks five days a week.
In some ways, he’s lucky to have work at all. Youth unemployment stands at 35.8 percent in Iraq and every year adds thousands more graduates to the ranks. “Unless you have connections in an HR department, or government, you won’t get a job,” Eabra says. The problem is even worse in his native Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland in northern Iraq, where lack of funding from central government has undermined attempts to rebuild the town and reboot its economy after years of conflict.
Thousands, like Eabra, still live in displacement camps after fleeing the Isis onslaught in 2014, when the group overran Sinjar and massacred thousands of Yazidis, killing and enslaving men, women and children. Some are too traumatized to go back, others say there is nothing to return to, with homes destroyed and no opportunities to start afresh.
“The whole of Iraq is suffering from the job shortages, but in Sinjar it’s worse – 70 to 80 percent of graduates are unemployed,” says Murad Ismael, an engineering professional from Sinjar. After eight years working with NGOs, he’s concerned that the lack of opportunities is demoralizing young people, undermining a generation that should be out in the workforce, helping to build a modern Iraq. “People see that nothing is changing, it’s either stagnant or getting worse, so they struggle to find hope. It’s a very depressing environment for young people.”
He says that families often make substantial financial sacrifices to send a child to university, then they graduate and can't find work. “Most of these people live in camps, with no private space, no jobs, no money. People just sit at home and lose energy.” Part of the problem, he adds is outdated university courses that fail to prepare students for today’s job market. “They graduate to find they are still a burden on their family, who already have nothing,” he says.
IT and tech skills are in high demand, not just in Iraq but worldwide, affording opportunities to work remotely for foreign companies who often pay more than local employers. While data scientist roles, of the kind that Eabra is seeking, are in short supply, there is demand for web developers in Iraq. “With programming there is potential in the workforce both internally and externally,” says Ismael. “Overall it’s not a very technology-supportive environment in Iraq but we’re trying to create the skills and opportunities to drive this forward.”
In April last year, he launched the Sinjar Academy, offering high-quality courses in computer programming, web development and digital media, supplemented by English language lessons. “We wanted something that fits the needs of the economy and is effective in providing employment,” he says. After eight years working for NGOs, Murad has seen how a lack of opportunities forces people to rely on aid agencies. “There needs to be a transition from non-profits to an economy that can stand on its own feet, work that can generate income and resources,” he says.
Already, 81 people have completed IT courses at Sinjar Academy, with another 167 currently enrolled. Demand has been equally high for the English language course, which is run in conjunction with the British Council and offers internationally recognized certification. Murad's primary focus is furnishing young Yazidis with skills to work in the tech sector and move forward with their lives, but in doing so he hopes to help heal the community. “Education is also a way for people to process what they have suffered and forget their situation,” he says.
Eabra is among those employed to develop and teach programming courses at Sinjar Academy. He works on content in the evenings after work, grappling with frequent power outages and internet cuts in a crowded space shared with his mother, brother and sister in Rwanga camp in northern Kurdistan. His secondhand laptop, purchased for $100, didn’t come with a battery, so every power cut halts his work, but he carries on because he knows the benefit that sharing his skills will have. “I have told my students, if you study this program, you will have the opportunity to learn a trade in two months,” he says.
Like other teachers at the academy, his salary has been paid by an Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub grant, which covers Sinjar Academy’s expenses for the next few months. “There is no lack of talent in Iraq, young people just need connectivity to the global market and practical skills relevant to the jobs,” says Faisal al Mutar, founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders.
In the future, Ismael hopes to expand to a proper campus and register as a university, but for now, most of the students learn online, unable to afford the commute from the camps. “If people have good skills, they will get work. The issue is not having a degree, it’s about the ability and opportunity to make the most of their lives,” he says.
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