31 MAY 2017, EASTERN GHOUTA — Today, students in Eastern Ghouta completed their first semester at the Maharat ICT Academy.
The Maharat ICT Academy promotes a vocational focus, aiming to get students into work with local, regional, and even global organisations. Finding work and earning a steady income is a major issue in Syria, as more than 6 years of conflict have left the country’s infrastructure in ruins and created extreme instability in its markets. In Eastern Ghouta, an area under siege since 2012, the difficulties are even greater. Here, more than half the population is unemployed and a staggering 78 percent of young people cannot find work.
The Academy seeks to foster relationships with businesses, local councils, and organisations providing humanitarian and development assistance in order to find placements for its students. “It’s really bad for young people,” laments Ausama Suleman, the program manager responsible for the academy. “Without jobs and money, youth are vulnerable and can end up being forced into dangerous situations just to pay for basic things like food. We’re trying to invest in our students and we work closely with them and the community to help them find ways to build a sustainable future.”
Where the Academy really hopes to make a difference is with its approach to the international freelancing market. Students take courses in personal entrepreneurship and are taught how to use commercial services such as UpWork, where they can offer their talents to clients all around the world and earn income by building websites and developing apps.
For students like Mohammed Aissa, the Academy has helped keep their ambition alive. “The training centre has amazing facilities and has provided us with a great opportunity to learn,” explains Mohammed. “We have great potential and ability to work hard and succeed; all we needed was someone to support us and help launch us.”
Yet, completing a semester of training inside a besieged area is by no means easy. Located just outside Damascus, Eastern Ghouta is divided between several armed opposition groups and has been the site of intense fighting since 2011. Airstrikes, shelling, and sniper fire are regular hazards for inhabitants of the area as they attempt to go about their daily lives. Nonetheless, both Academy staff and students have proven to be highly resilient. Whenever it was too dangerous for Maharat Academy to remain open, students and staff arranged make-up days so that they could maintain momentum.
Intense fighting broke out between two opposition groups during the students’ final exams at the end of April, making it impossible for many students to travel to the Academy. Thanks to a partnership with the Douma local council, however, alternative buildings and invigilators were found, allowing students to take their exams in safety closer to their homes.
With the first semester now over, students are not waiting around for the second to begin. Eager to apply their newly acquired skills, the young women and men of the Maharat ICT Academy are offering to volunteer their services in exchange for practical experience. Already, students are building websites for 11 NGOs working in Eastern Ghouta, as well as working on Roia’s SpeakLoud project, which provides free webhosting to altruistic non-profit organisations.
Next semester the students will move onto more advanced subjects like computer programming languages. They also have an opportunity to get involved with the Academy’s entrepreneurship program, where they will be awarded micro-grants of up to US$4,000 to develop innovative ICT projects.