Refugee kids are coding bright, safe futures in Germany

With Google-donated Chromebooks and a dedicated mentor, refugee children are embracing the possibilities of tech in Berlin.

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

Imagine watching buildings disintegrate after being hit by tank shells, and people you know lying on the ground, dead or wounded. Picture yourself and your family crammed into a small boat, braving choppy seas, and then living in makeshift, unsanitary camps for weeks or months. Finally, you reach your destination.

Now think about experiencing that brutal reality as an 8-year-old from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, whose family is seeking asylum in Germany. "Everyone is traumatized in some way [from] the conditions of their home country and also the fleeing," says Lisa Ramzews, who manages social services for Munich's Bayerne-Kaserne refugee center.

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German aid organization Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund converted a former town hall in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district into a refugee center.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

These children are now coping with a different sort of upheaval: Going to a new school in a country of strangers, speaking a different language. That can be upsetting for them -- and a massive strain on Germany, where nearly 1.1 million people registered for asylum last year. The country's efforts to educate refugee children barely gets a passing grade, Unicef said in June.

In a report that month, the UN agency also pointed out that refugee children are taught to a lower education standard than native-born children and, depending on their chances of receiving asylum, may not receive any education at all. It's one reason companies like Google, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard will help more than 80,000 children in refugee camps get an education, President Barack Obama said last month at the Leaders Summit on Refugees.

Even before that announcement, Google had donated 25,000 Chromebooks to refugees in 500 locations across Germany.

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Google donated Chromebooks to refugees around Germany through a program it calls Project Reconnect.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I traveled to Germany in August, along with my CNET colleagues Shara Tibken and Andrew Hoyle, to see how people are using tech to "integrate" the flood of migrants into society. We visited refugee centers across the country and met volunteers tapping into tech to help kids learn, adjust and heal.

In 2015, German aid organization Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (or Workers' Samaritan Federation) took over a former town hall in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district to house up to 1,200 refugees. Children play in the central courtyard of the beige, five-story stone building. Others are busy in the ground-floor computer room with 22 Google-donated Chromebooks.

This is Ahmed Al-Tameemi's domain.

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Ahmed Al-Tameemi takes a selfie in front of his name written in graffiti. A friend created the painting in Berlin's Richard Wagner Platz.

Ahmed Al-Tameemi

"From the first day I came here, I volunteered," says, Al-Tameemi, 25, an Iraqi refugee who moved to Berlin last year. A graduate in computer science, he became the shelter's unofficial tech support provider and de facto instructor of basic computing skills as well as programming.

There were language problems at first, since the keyboards had Roman letters and the children could only read Arabic. Al-Tameemi realized that the language barrier presented a learning opportunity.

"I asked for stickers," he says. "But then I said, no -- don't get me stickers. Let them learn to write English because it will be like this in the future. They will not see Arabic."

Al-Tameemi discovered the kids, ages 7 to 15, knew nothing about computers. He even had to teach them how to use Chromebooks, Google's web-connected laptops. But like most kids learning new things, they took to computing as if they'd known it their entire lives.

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Children play in a makeshift garden in the Wilmersdorf shelter.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

He wondered how far he could push them. Would they want to learn programming?

"Do you want your future to be good?" he asked them. "Do you want to be proud of yourself and be someone people are happy to talk to? Do you want a job that can earn you lots of money?"

Who's going to say no to a pitch like that?

Even more, these young Syrian and Iraqi refugees are learning to see their world as a place of possibilities, not fear. "Most of the adults still think like they did in their countries," says Al-Tameemi. "With the kids, I was trying to erase the memories from the past."

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