Empowering Newcomers

A few Fellows have started to reach beyond the walls of the university to involve external partners and create resources in the surrounding community. This story is an excerpt from Designing for Change.

Yaser Alkayale’s family moved to Canada from Syria in 2006 in search of better educational opportunities. In 2014, Yaser enrolled in Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and became a computer science major.

When Syrian refugees began to arrive in Canada in 2015 and 2016 to escape the Syrian civil war, Yaser couldn’t imagine how it would feel to be forced out of his home and moved to another country involuntarily. 

Halifax alone welcomed more than 1,000 refugees, who didn’t keep that title for long. “In Canada, once refugees arrive, they are called ‘Canadian newcomers’,” Yaser said.

Yaser wanted to help in his own way to make the newcomers feel embraced. After meeting with several administrators to figure out a way to connect the university with the Syrian newcomer community, he met with the dean of Computer Science. The dean shared an idea for a coding camp for the newcomers, and also donated funds to support it.

With this support and idea in hand, Yaser designed the curriculum with help from members of the Syrian Student Society. One of the goals was to help refugees feel more certain about their place in the education system and expose them to what computer science has to offer. 

In August 2016, Yaser and another student collaborator held the first coding camp, hosted by the Syrian Student Society with support from the provost and the Dalhousie Computer Science Faculty. More than 30 Syrian newcomers spent five days learning HTML, CSS and Javascript. The camp was free of charge to participants.

“We took them from barely knowing what a computer is to building websites from scratch, and they were excited to learn more,” Yaser said. “What made this possible was a common goal — Syrian newcomers wanted to learn, the student societies had the power to get it done, and the dean wanted to help out.”

Yaser reported that several of the event participants are now pursuing higher education in a college or university. The camp has continued, and teaches a variety of subjects including robotics and mobile computing. It is open to newcomers from all backgrounds.

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