“Global tech hub” may not be the first three words that spring to mind when describing the besieged and war-ravaged Gaza Strip. But a group of young Palestinians in the tiny territory, home to some 1.8 million people, are trying to change assumptions.
Every young computer programmer in Gaza Sky Geek’s graffiti-clad headquarters has lived through three brutal wars, but the trendy workspace resembles a scrubby startup in a Hackney warehouse more than an office in one of the most conflict-ridden cities in the world.
Inspirational quotes (“say yes to new adventures”), references to Pirates of the Caribbean, and cartoon drawings are scrawled over the walls. Under the logos of Amazon, Google and Microsoft, young men and women crowd around laptops in a hive of activity.
The initiative was first launched with Google and Mercy Corps charity in 2011, to try to help youth find work. Gaza, where more than half the population is under the age of 29, suffers from a crippling 60 per cent youth unemployment rate – currently one of the highest in the world.
Last year they launched Gaza’s first coding academy together with London-based computer training company Founders and Coders. Now the tech hub is trying to expand into the other side of Palestine, the geographically separate West Bank.
Most of the young population have never left Gaza because of a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since the Hamas militant group seized control of the territory in 2007.
Despite the physical barrier, Gaza Sky Geeks hopes to launch the West Bank’s first coding academy in October and even send its best coders there if they can get permits to travel from the Israelis.
“The idea came out of necessity. The unemployment rate in Gaza is so high, due to blockade and now aid cuts. There is nothing in the private sector or in NGOs, you can’t open your own company without a solid infrastructure,” said Moamin Abu Ewaida, one of Gaza Sky Geek’s founding members.
“So people started to think about the internet, whether it’s coding, freelancing, entrepreneurship or offering tech solutions. Because of the blockade the only gateway for us is the internet. With the internet there is no blockade,” he added.
Last year the team began six-month training courses in Gaza, as much of the population were still rebuilding their lives and livelihoods following the destruction of the 2014 war with Israel.
During the 50-day conflict, more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the Strip, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel. Over the summer tensions have reached boiling point again. Only interventions from the United Nations and Egypt have dragged both sides back from the brink of war.
Despite the challenges, this month Gaza Sky Geeks held an initial signup meeting in the West Bank city of Hebron to get the ball rolling. The course not only teaches coding but helps its students offer prototypes to companies and charities, and in the final two months acts as a kind of job agency, securing them full-time work.
“We want to take our skills and our networks to the West Bank. We are already working with different companies, different brands like Amazon, Facebook, Google. We need to share that,” Mr Abu Ewaida continued.
“Ultimately our mission is having Gaza as the tech hub for the Middle East, North Africa region and even the world,” he said.
The West Bank, which is controlled by the largely secular Palestinian Authority, is arguably more open to the world than Gaza, that faces tougher sanctions and controls. And so the West Bank youth were surprised by the skills of their Gazan counterparts.
“Honestly people here were pretty shocked,” said Rand Safi, 26, from the West Bank city of Ramallah where Gaza Sky Geeks held a meet up session in July, although only the international mentors were permitted to leave the Strip and travel there.
Ms Safi, who is working with Mercy Corps, said a lot of people, particularly women, also joined the introductory coding session in Hebron, arguably the most troubled city in the West Bank. Applications close next month for the new coding course.
“We are hoping this will be a way for Gaza to share their knowledge with their peers in the West Bank, we too have an unemployment problem here. There are thousands of graduates each year who have nowhere to go,” she added.
Matt Davies, a British tech expert from Founders and Coders, who is also part of the international mentor team, said it was already having a profound effect.
“People are excited to change perspectives from thinking of Gaza, and Palestine as a war zone to a tech zone,” he said.
Back in Gaza the programme has changed lives. Hanein Shahwan, 25, a computer engineer from Gaza, was desperate for a job after graduating from university with flying colours. She is in the closing stages of the coding academy’s fifth round of students.
“Honestly I tried so hard to find other work but the situation in Gaza is so difficult right now. Of 50 people who graduate, two or three will be lucky enough to land a job. So I turned to coding,” she told The Independent from the Gaza Sky Geeks headquarters.
“Now I can work from anywhere from home, from a cafe. With the sufficient software skills, I can apply for jobs on websites, and crucially can find one easily.”
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