“They took a few of us on a bus to Tel Aviv and dropped us off at the central bus station. I was 18 and a half and didn’t know what to do. I got to Jaffa and linked up with people who could help me. I worked in order to survive and learn about where I was,” says Tesfalem Haile, who arrived as an asylum seeker in Israel nine years ago from Eritrea.
It wasn’t always easy for Haile, who spent some of the following years in the Saharonim detention facility for African refugees. But today he’s among the first students to be taking a course in software development through the nonprofit African Refugee Development Center.
The goal is to solve two problems. The first is to find employment for African asylum seekers, and the second to fill a yawning shortage of skilled employees for Israel’s high-tech sector. Israeli tech companies are coping with a shortfall that the industry group Startup Nation Central estimates at about 15,000 employees. That’s causing pay to rise and many companies to outsource work abroad.
The approximately 32,600 African refugees might seem a poor match for high-tech, but Ori Lahat, the development center’s director, says that’s not true. “People aren’t aware of this, but there are asylum seekers who have come with advanced degrees,” he says. Haile had studied marine biology in Eritrea for a year and a half before fleeing the country.
The “coding boot camp” that the development institute sponsors is an intensive, fast-track course to teach the ins and out of programming and help the students land a job in Israel. It’s an alternative for people who want to pursue a career in high-tech but don’t have the time or resources to get a degree in engineering or computer science.
The development center’s program got off to a rocky start, but the nonprofit learned from its mistakes and the course Haile is on is run by the Developers Institute, one of 15 such short courses available in Israel. The African asylum seekers are part of a special class run by the institute for immigrants from France, Sweden and Argentina. The next boot camps will also be run by Appleseeds Academy and Elevation Academy.
The course runs 10 months, is taught in English and meets three times a week. It’s tough and takes a lot of dedication from the students; after six months, half the original 10 have dropped out.
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Awet Kebedom, 35, who has a degree from Eritrea in accounting, is taking the course while working and helping support a wife and two children. “I get up at 5 A.M. and go to work,” he says. “At 6 P.M. I’m in Tel Aviv in classes. I finish at 9 P.M. and get on a bus to Ashdod, which means I get home at 11.”
Even the most qualified and ambitious asylum seekers face huge obstacles in finding a place in Israeli high-tech. The government doesn’t encourage them to pursue academic studies and they often arrive in the country without documents attesting to their credentials. Only about 35 asylum seekers are getting a degree in Israel.
“The lucky ones with documents confirming their studies in Eritrea have less of a problem being accepted for studies here,” Haile says. “I tried to get mine through my parents but I learned that it would put them at risk because it would show I had fled the country.”
The development center’s program, on the other hand, accepts students based on their ability to show they’ll be able to complete the course. In that respect it’s like other programs to recruit outsiders like Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews to high-tech. In the development center’s program, about 40 candidates undergo basic studies in physics and math and the 10 best move on to the boot camp.
The other big obstacle is money. The boot camp costs between 18,000 and 26,000 shekels ($7,450) per student, which the program requires students to pay back via a low-interest loan. Also, under a law in force since 2017, graduates who land a job must put 20% of their salaries in a special deposit they can only take out when they leave Israel.
The development center’s program is funded through a combination of charity and social impact bonds. The charitable portion, which pays to administer the program, comes from the Shapiro Foundation in the United States. The social impact bonds have been raised through the organization Social Finance Israel and cover the students’ tuition costs. Successful students repay the loans from their future earnings.
The program doesn’t stop with teaching software coding skills. The development center holds networking breakfasts with about 30 high-tech executives, Lahat says. The breakfasts are organized together with the "30|30" nonprofit, which brings together groups from low socioeconomic background with business leaders, and include one for women only, at a facility of the shared-workplace company WeWork.
“We created a situation of two worlds that never would have met if it weren’t for the event,” he says. “The meetings helped open doors and the companies that participated expressed a preliminary interest not only in helping and advising but also in hiring workers.”
Guesty, a property management platform for short-term and vacation rentals, was one of the companies that participated. Vered Raviv Schwarz, its chief operating officer, says companies like hers are willing to consider hiring staff who don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
Columbia University will be taking a role in the program starting next month when lecturers offer classes in basic computer applications at the development center’s offices and donate PCs for students’ use. In the next cycle of classes they will be responsible for teaching the science and math foundation course.
Haile remains worried he won’t be able to find work in high-tech even if he completes the boot camp. “I realize it’s hard and my status is problematic; I sat with someone from WeWork and we talked about my life and about working here,” he says. “I got advice on how to succeed – it motivated me.”