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Volunteer effort to help refugees gets even bigger | The Network


Growing up in Aleppo Syria, Sana Abo Helal never thought she’d live anywhere else in the world, but when the war broke out, everything changed. Abo Helal was a student at Aleppo University, studying computer science engineering. By the time she graduated in 2015, she and her fiancé, who is now her husband, knew they had to get out. “We were thinking about Turkey and we learned some Turkish, but then the plan changed and my husband went to Germany,” Abo Helal said.

She joined him a few months later in Berlin, but didn’t know any German. Abo Helal started learning the language a few months after she arrived. She already knew English, but she started taking a free English conversation course for Syrian people at Cisco to sharpen her skills. While at Cisco, she ran into another Aleppo University alum, Joud Sayed Issa.  “We got to know each other and she told me about ReDI School,” Abo Helal recalled. She first enrolled in a Java programming class with her husband, and later took an IoT course, taught by Cisco data center developer, Claus Schaale. With his encouragement, Abo Helal immersed herself in cybersecurity, blockchain and IoT. Ultimately, she landed a coveted Cisco internship to work on a project focused on blockchain.  “I feel lucky to have this opportunity,” Abo Helal said.  She now works with Vallard Benincosa, a data center sales architect, who believes he’s the lucky one to work with Abo Helal.  “Sana is great,” Benicosa said.  “I wish a had a few more Sanas.  I feel like we could build our own BU with more people like her and tackle blockchain. She gets it pretty quick and I can tell she wants to understand the whole thing.”

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Abo Helal has now gone from learning about IoT in a ReDi School course, to supporting the class as a teaching assistant. Among the students in the class? Her husband. “ReDI School was the right community for us newcomers,” Abo Helal said. “I can’t imagine living here without it. The situation would be much harder.”

Schaale is one of 86 employees in Cisco’s Berlin office who has volunteered more than 620 hours helping refugees who are currently living in Germany. Marissa Brown, an IT program manager is another one. “I feel like I have a sense of responsibility to help other people, especially other women, in an area I have knowledge around,” Brown said. “To be able to take something that I know, and use that for good and help other people learn, or to be able to inspire curiosity, I think is really valuable.”

Brown is now co-teaching an intro to cybersecurity course offered exclusively to female refugees. Cybersecurity is a growing career globally and there are already more jobs available than there are workers. Brown, who is American and has lived in Germany for nearly three years, can relate to her students. “I didn’t come over from hardship and war, but I do understand coming to a new country and a new culture where you don’t understand the language, and how isolating and challenging that to be,” Brown said.  According to the Financial Times, more refugees have arrived in Germany over the last three years than anywhere else in the European Union. 

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The education has been so successful in Berlin, that ReDI School recently expanded to Munich. Cisco is one of several tech companies who have partnered with ReDI School. Microsoft employees are also heavily involved in teaching tech classes. Isabel Grund, a cloud solution architect is teaching a semester-long course on cloud computing. “Most of the students who come to Germany haven’t worked for two to three years and they know they’ve missed a lot in technology,” Grund said. “They’re really motivated. They want the presentations. They even ask for homework.”

For Abo Helal, she says she and her husband feel lucky to have had the opportunities ReDI school gave them. And as much as she misses her family back in Syria, she doesn’t see herself going back anytime soon. “The German people have been very accepting of the refugees,” Abo Helal said. “There are a lot of organizations and activities that try and integrate the Syrians with society.”

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