Refugee learners aim to lift up their communities

The MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) recently celebrated the graduation of its third Certificate in Computer and Data Science cohort in an online ceremony. ReACT is a yearlong online learning program that creates education-to-employment pathways for talented refugees and displaced populations.

The graduating cohort of 50 learners represented 22 countries worldwide — by far the broadest representation the program has had, made possible by the shift to all-online programming due to the pandemic. “We were all isolated, but we found this platform where everybody could come from multicultural backgrounds,” says learner Blein Alem. “It’s been more than a community, it’s been like family.”

ReACT is an MIT-wide effort that started in 2017 in response to MIT Solve’s call for refugee education solutions. A key innovation of the MIT ReACT model is the holistic support it brings to online learning, guided by four core pillars: academics, human skills (known sometimes as “soft skills”), professional internships and experiential learning projects, and networking. The program’s robust list of internal partners — including MIT Bootcamps, MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), MITx, and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives — and external collaborators including organizations, philanthropic supporters, companies, universities, and alumni provide hands-on learning opportunities so ReACT learners can put MIT’s motto of “mens et manus” (“mind and hand”) into practice.

A new kind of online community 

Participants in ReACT’s Certificate in Computer and Data Science program take online undergraduate-level MITx courses in programming, computational thinking, and data science. The learners also participated in interactive online workshops with J-WEL and collaborator Na’amal, an organization that supports skill development for refugees, where they build and test skills in innovation and entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership, and problem-solving. The program wraps up with opportunities for participants to apply their knowledge and skills in a paid onsite or remote internship or experiential learning project with a member of MIT ReACT’s network of organizations.

Traditionally, ReACT offers a blended learning program with an onsite MIT Bootcamp experience in Amman, Jordan. The pandemic underscored the need to provide accessible learning opportunities to displaced and vulnerable populations wherever they are, so the program shifted entirely online in 2020-21. The 50 learners, selected from a vigorous application process, came from very different circumstances across the globe, but the program’s cohort-based model and digital platforms allowed everyone to stay connected, receive support, and motivate each other.

The cohort completed an intensive, 10-week online MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp, integrated within the Bootcamp’s larger class of 300 aspiring global entrepreneurs, to build their leadership capacities and new entrepreneurial ventures. Learner Lubna Qarqaz says, “I worked with four different colleagues with way different nationalities and backgrounds. Even though it was challenging at first regarding culture, language, and time differences, we became friends afterward, and we made it to the final top five teams to present our innovation idea in front of a high-quality committee in academics and entrepreneur fields.”

Rigor, connection, and opportunity

The graduation ceremony celebrated the unique challenges the all-virtual cohort faced during a particularly challenging year. ReACT Faculty Director Admir Masic, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, kicked off the celebrations by sharing how ReACT transformed from idea to a fully-realized program. Once a refugee himself, Masic imparted to the learners, “Knowledge is something no one can take from you.” In his keynote, Acting Vice President for Open Learning Krishna Rajagopal remarked, “Talent has no borders.” The learners also shared their own experiences and showcased their experiential learning projects.

Several learners shared how ReACT opened up new employment pathways in their personal careers. Gloria Carrascal initially found the program challenging due to her level of proficiency in English, but she says, “I got confident after each step through the program. This was a place to learn and be more optimistic and active in life. I got full of energy to work on generating new opportunities each day.” Some of those opportunities included organizing workshops at University of Atlántico and receiving an offer from a Northeastern University professor to apply for her PhD in quantum computing.

Learner Rund Wadi was an electrical engineer, but after her experiential learning project with FreeCodeCamp — an organization that provides high-quality free interactive online training in software engineering — she was inspired to switch career tracks to that field. Another learner, Lubna Qarqaz, was able to use her qualifications as an MIT ReACT learner to secure the job she has now. She then applied her experiences with Python and the Innovation Bootcamp to her current position, resulting in more profit for the company and positive feedback from her managers.

Other groups were also able to leverage their skills and apply what they learned from ReACT to create positive change in their local contexts. Since starting in the program, Alejandra Garcia Isaza has been able to craft methods for tracking the Covid-19 cases and vaccination progress in her home country of Colombia. Another group, named “Nuru Yetu” (meaning “our light” in Swahili), wanted to empower refugees in northern Uganda to install and maintain sustainable energy sources such as solar, leveraging D-Lab curriculum on MIT OpenCourseWare. Learner Rund Wadi also took initiative to translate the curriculum she learned from FreeCodeCamp into Arabic so she could share it with fellow learners and refugees.

One of the final learner presentations was from Amisi Jospin Hassan, who formed the organization ADAI Circle within the last year so he could share his knowledge about data science and artificial intelligence with other people in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp and surrounding villages in Malawi. Today, ADAI Circle has a building that’s part coworking space, electronic lab, computer lab, gaming space, and more, where they provide mentorship for youth and other consulting.

MIT ReACT holds that education has the power to create new opportunities, livelihoods, and hope for refugees and displaced learners. ReACT is now accepting applications for the fourth offering of its Certificate in Computer and Data Science (CDS) program, which will begin January 2022. With over 100 open seats, supported by Western Union Foundation and individual supporters like John and Maria Pfeffer, the new cohort of the year-long online learning program for talented refugees and underserved learners worldwide will be the largest to date.

As Rajagopal said to this graduating cohort, “My challenge to you is, how will you open your learning to build your communities up? How will you offer your shoulders for others to stand on?”