What was your background before you started at V School?
I’m 18 years old, and I came to Lebanon from Syria four years ago. I got my high school baccalaureate degree here in Lebanon, then I received a scholarship to study physics at the American University of Beirut. However, I’ve always wanted to learn how to code, so I started looking for other opportunities as well. A friend told me about V School– he had already applied and been accepted.
Can you share why you left Syria and moved to Lebanon?
By the time I was in 9th grade, the situation in Aleppo was terrible; we had two months without water, electricity, gasoline, or vegetables. So after I finished my 9th-grade exams, my father took us to visit my grandmother in Lebanon. When we tried to return home, the road back to Aleppo was closed and we haven’t been back since. We came to Lebanon with only one bag, so we started from zero.
Have you always been interested in learning about technology?
I’ve always been interested, yes. But in Syria, technology is not as well-known. In 7th grade, we started learning about technology, and how to use a computer. But using the internet in Syria is very expensive, very slow, and hard to get. Once we were in Lebanon, I started becoming more interested in technology. I found that I enjoyed breaking the computer, and working out how to fix it. And I started to watch video tutorials online.
Had you tried to learn any coding before you came to V School?
When did you start V School and why did you think it was a good choice for you?
I started at V School about 10 weeks ago. When I came for the first day, I saw how they treated each other like a family. In the class there are people who already knew some programming, and there are people who didn’t know anything. Whenever you ask for help, no one mocks you. I was afraid of people making fun of me because I didn’t know anything about programming, but V School accepts students with zero knowledge. On my first day, one of the TAs, Jamel, came and helped me. He encouraged me to keep attending class.
Being at V School has really had a positive impact on me. Right before V School, I was going through some difficult stuff, personally. But once I got to V School, I started getting out of my dorm room and meeting nice people, which has really changed my life. I was in a very tough situation and they changed me.
What was the application process like for V School?
We did an online test which involved a sequence and some problem solving. It was like a simplified IQ test. Then they sent through a message to say my application was successful and that I could attend the classes.
How many people are in your class? Does everyone come from different backgrounds?
There are about 40 students in my class. More than half of us are Syrians, but there is also a student from Iraq, Syrian Palestinians, Lebanese Palestinians, and the rest are Lebanese. There is a mix of women and men. I think I’m the youngest in the class. Most people are in their 20s and 30s. It’s really a beautiful mixture of people sharing our aims, our pains, and working together.
My classmate from Iraq was a medicine student who studied for three years but had to leave his country because of civil war. Because he cannot continue his medical education, he is getting another opportunity at V School. It’s different from his original major, but he feels like getting out of the house and attending tech classes might improve his life.
Who are your instructors? Is the course all taught in English?
Jacob is the main instructor; he’s American and explains everything in English. Haitham is our other instructor who translates everything Jacob says into Arabic. Then we have two TAs, Hiba and Jamel, who also help with translating. Some of my classmates don’t know any English, some people are bilingual, and some people are good at English.
It’s interesting because many other courses in Beirut require basic English language skills. But here at V School, my friend sitting beside me doesn’t know any English. V School’s slogan is that you can learn programming with an American instructor even if you don’t know English, which is awesome. Not knowing much English can be a problem for many Syrian refugees, even in universities. But Haitham and the TAs are always translating, so at V School it’s not a problem.
What is the learning experience like at V School — can describe a typical day?
We study six days per week for 20 weeks. On Monday to Thursday we attend class from 6pm to 9pm, and on Saturday we have class from 3pm to 8pm. They describe every single detail of the topic we’re learning; they go beyond the surface to describe and explain the depth of the programming language.
If there is a new concept to learn, Jacob explains the general idea first. Then he starts building simple code, and Haitham translates it to Arabic and explains it to others. Then Jacob asks us to build it on our computers. He gives us 10 minutes to write out the code on our computers, and see what happens. If we are struggling, then the TAs will help us. Jacob builds by adding methods to the code. At the end of the class, we get an assignment to do, and at the end of each week we have a project to do over the weekend and submit on Monday. The Project contains everything that we have learned that week.
What’s been your favorite project so far at V School?
I’m also working on my own project, which I think will be my final project. It’s an app for Syrian refugees. Many Syrians in Lebanon are not able to find work. When they contact local companies or try to work as freelancers, they don’t have the right skills. But if we look at the EU workforce, there is a growing demand for people with tech skills, and many jobs are going unfilled because not enough people have the skills, and the people who do are demanding high wages. So we are building an app to connect refugees with companies outside of Lebanon to work as freelancers. We are also launching a learning center to teach refugees digital skills like e-marketing, design, and coding, which will be located near the refugee camps in northern Lebanon. We will introduce refugees and underprivileged youth in Lebanon to our application. We’re hoping to launch in the summer.
What has been your biggest challenge so far in learning to code?
Some days, I’ve felt like I wanted to cry. Sometimes there are specific things about coding that you don’t understand, so you have to look for the answer. But when the code doesn’t work, and you start to debug the error and you can’t find it, you don’t want to have to ask for help. You want to depend on yourself, and that’s hard at the beginning. But now I’m not struggling with anything. The instructors and TAs also teach us how to Google things – some of us didn’t know to research things online. Jacob and Haitham have taught us how to problem solve.
What types of careers can V School graduates have when they graduate?
Mainly, you can work as a remote freelancer. The Arabian Gulf area requires a lot of web developing. We can find jobs– not necessarily full-time jobs– as web developers, code writers, or problem solvers. The logic we are learning behind the programming is much more important than the coding itself. It’s the logic of thinking about all problems in life.
What are your plans for the future? Will you stay in Beirut?
I am a first year student at the American University of Beirut right now. I want to continue my studies in nuclear research, so I will eventually have to apply to study abroad because I’ll need to be near a nuclear physics research center. But until then I will work part time as a web developer while I continue my university studies.
Why did you decide to study nuclear physics?
I originally applied for university as a medicine student, but I hated it. There are already a lot of doctors around the world, but nuclear is the future of the human race. Nuclear is important for power stations and energy in general. I’m double majoring in political science, and then I’ll continue with one year of international law.
Do you think eventually you’ll be able to combine your coding skills with your physics skills?
Of course! In the nuclear physics industry, you need technology. I can’t put myself in a situation where I don’t understand what a computer scientist is talking to me about. These coding skills are essential for my career.
With my nuclear physics, plus political science, plus coding studies, I feel I can reach a very good place in the world. I don’t want to be a regular student who graduates from a university with only a degree. I want to be somebody. I want people to say “Sendus did that.”
Do you think that coding bootcamps like V School could be an effective way to train other refugees?
Yes. Look at Germany after World War II: they didn’t have many functioning schools or universities, so the Germans started what they called “community learning,” where a group of people teach their skills to another group of people. Just like code schools.
It’s great that you can learn a whole programming language in 20 weeks, which can get you a freelancing job, when university graduates aren’t even able to get a job. One of my Syrian classmates can’t attend university, because he has to go to work to support his family, so attending classes at V School part-time and getting a job in 6 months is really awesome for him.
For the 60% of Syrians in the class who can’t afford university, V School is a great way for them to learn, and find work. One of the TAs, Jamil, was a student at V School, and now he is teaching at V School. I know that the other students and I will also find work.
Do you have anything else to add about your experience?
In addition to the skills, V School has been beneficial to me psychologically, socially, intellectually and educationally. I attend class for three hours per day, and I have a lot of friends who are supporting me, working together, doing group work, and ready to help each other. What companies like V School are doing is really amazing. They are giving really amazing chances to people who have lost hope, and in turn, I’m able to launch my learning center and help more people.
Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves writing about technology and education. Her background is in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites. She grew up in England, Dubai and New Zealand, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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