In 2014, Marcello Bonatto and Alexandra Clare moved to New York City to pursue master’s degrees at Columbia University and New York University, respectively. Brazilian Bonatto and Australian Clare met in a class called Applied Peacebuilding, a joint module designed by their universities.

“We both wanted to improve education for children and youth in war zones.”

“We immediately became friends after realizing how much our visions aligned,” Bonatto told Inside Arabia. “We both wanted to improve education for children and youth in war zones.” In the spring semester of 2014, a great partnership with a humanitarian mission was born.

Two Partners, One Mission, Zero Doubt

In June 2014, Clare traveled to Iraq as part of a peacebuilding initiative linked to her master’s program at NYU. During her visit, she saw millions of Iraqis fleeing from Mosul as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) encroached on the city, making the country’s already difficult humanitarian crisis that much more dire.  

“At the time, only three percent of displaced youth had access to education, while dignified employment opportunities were scarce and primarily in the informal sector, where the pay is low and exploitation is high,” Clare explained to Inside Arabia. Several months later, she returned to Iraq and conducted over 400 interviews with young Iraqis to understand what skills they wanted to learn.

When an overwhelming majority of respondents said technology, Clare began to formulate a plan. After extensive research and consultation with Bonatto on program design, Clare completed her master’s thesis, which laid the groundwork for a new humanitarian project and partnership.

Bonatto and Clare launched a pilot version of Re:Coded in 2016, the first coding bootcamp (an intensive software development program that teaches non-coders how to code) for displaced youth in a conflict-affected country.

That same year, the Re:Coded cofounders launched a different kind of partnership. “Ali and I are not only business partners, but also partners in life. We got married in 2016,” Bonatto shared.

Innovation Born of Frustration

“The humanitarian and development sectors had been—and still are—replicating the same traditional livelihood programs where women learn cooking or sewing, and men are taught to be mechanics or barbers.”

After working in the field for the United Nations (UN) and various NGOs, Bonatto and Clare became frustrated with the lack of meaningful education and employment opportunities for youth affected by conflict. “The humanitarian and development sectors had been—and still are—replicating the same traditional livelihood programs where women learn cooking or sewing, and men are taught to be mechanics or barbers,” according to Bonatto.

Youth under the age of 25 made up approximately 59 percent of the population of Iraq in 2017. In the same year, the unemployment rate in that age group reached 16.8 percent. The unemployment rate among displaced Syrians in Iraq is likely to be even higher. Displaced or not, the traditional economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) can no longer absorb the millions of young people entering labor markets across the region.

However, the emerging tech sector is revolutionizing the global workforce and providing young people around the world access to more job opportunities than ever. Bonatto and Clare wanted to capitalize on this international trend, so they adapted the U.S. coding bootcamp model that emerged in 2011 and officially re-launched Re:Coded in May 2017. The nonprofit currently operates in Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen.

Unlike most vocational training programs in humanitarian contexts, Re:Coded focuses on “preparing youth for the future of work through high-end technical skills and imparting a life-long learning mindset,” according to Clare. The nonprofit empowers young people in conflict areas with the skills they need to enter the digital economy as software developers, tech leaders, and multipliers who can help their countries’ war-shattered economies on their journey to recovery.

In the past 18 months, Re:Coded has trained nearly 400 young people and children to code in Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen. Almost 85 percent of Re:Coded graduates work as software developers, earning at least three times more than they did before entering the program. The initiative is also playing a critical role in bridging the MENA region’s digital gender divide, as women make up over 40 percent of the student body.

Challenges of Working in a Conflict Zone

The Re:Coded initiative in Iraq has faced numerous challenges. The main problem is infrastructure. Although access to high-speed, reliable internet has been on the rise in the last few years, Iraq continues to suffer from daily power outages. Political instability has also led to the occasional disruption of Re:Coded activities in the country.

Bonatto and Clare also face difficulties finding the local talent needed to run their bootcamps. “We look for five core virtues in team members: proactivity, adaptability, self-awareness, accountability, and a growth mindset,” Bonatto explained. The candidates they interview often lack these essential skills.

Furthermore, when selecting students for their programs, the Re:Coded team struggles to find candidates who demonstrate the motivation and discipline needed to succeed in the program. To overcome this obstacle, Re:Coded teaches its students core skills, such as communication, time management, leadership, and problem-solving.

“Each program we run in Iraq (and elsewhere) is a learning experience,” Clare said. Re:Coded’s co-founders constantly evaluate their initiative to see what works and what does not and they try to innovate wherever possible. “There are multiple contextual challenges in every market we operate . . . but all of these are surmountable, and ultimately, overcoming them makes the Re:Coded programs stronger,” Clare added.

Decrypting the Region’s Message of Hope

In 2019, Re:Coded hopes to increase the number of youth it trains tenfold and double its team of 15. Bonatto and Clare are eager to refine the initiative’s model so they can expand quickly, but they also want to grow in a responsible and sustainable manner. By doing so, they hope  create more training opportunities for young people in cities and countries across the MENA region.

The Re:Coded cofounders currently work with some of the world’s leading organizations, including content creators, such as Udacity, Coursera, and WeWork; tech companies like Google, SAP, and Atlassian; and funders such as the UN, the German government, and private foundations like the Western Union Foundation.

For Bonatto and Clare, the most rewarding aspect of their work is watching Re:Coded graduates leverage their newly acquired skills to become leaders and agents of change. After graduating from the program, one Iraqi student joined a U.S.-based startup as a co-founder and chief  to develop a software generating digital microwork for refugees in his country. This is just one of many examples of Re:Coded’s impact.

“If we only told our boys and girls that they are good enough and gave them a gentle push to dream, they would go out to do great things.”

“If we only told our boys and girls that they are good enough and gave them a gentle push to dream, they would go out to do great things,” Bonatto emphasized. “Just because you’ve been affected by conflict doesn’t mean you are not highly skilled and talented. It’s important to recognize that refugees are just like you and me,” Clare concluded.

Through Re:Coded, Bonatto and Clare are “re-programming” the way that the MENA region looks at the future of its young generation and its endless potential.