Coding with EMPACT: Tech training is empowering Syrian refugees and youth in Turkey

WFP Innovation Accelerator
4 min readJan 6, 2021

By Gulia Rakhimova

EMPACT is an innovation project of the World Food Programme (WFP) that supports young people to start tech careers, bridging their way out of hunger and poverty to the future of work and self-reliance.

After successfully training nearly 7,000 young people in digital skills in Iraq, Lebanon and Kenya, EMPACT started a pilot project in Turkey in September 2020. The first cohort launched in Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, targeting refugees and low-income youth, and adapted swiftly to the new physical distancing reality under COVID-19.

The first cohort of EMPACT students in Turkey took part in two entirely virtual coding bootcamps in October and November 2020.

Rebuilding lives in turbulent times

Launching EMPACT in Turkey has been a logical step. The country hosts the world’s largest displaced population and is home to 4 million refugees, including more than 3.6 million who have fled the conflict in Syria.

Building home in a new place comes with unique hardships for refugees. A lack of stable employment is one of them as refugees’ language skills, foreign education, and work experience often don’t meet the job market needs. Youth unemployment is a country-wide issue too, which may drive young people into the informal labour market — often in dangerous and low-paid jobs.

The economic fallout caused by COVID-19 is amplifying these problems. Across the country, businesses hit by the crisis are forced to scale down and limit their hiring plans. For example, service and tourism sectors, which would offer entry-level jobs, have halted in many places. Despite their potential, many young refugees, as well as youth from low-income localities, need WFP’s assistance to make ends meet.

So how can tech training make a change?

Untapped talent pool

On the other end of the spectrum, Turkey’s tech industry is facing skills shortages. In line with the government’s 2023 Industry and Technology Strategy, the number of software developers across the country needs to grow from 140,000 to 500,000 to meet the IT sector’s demands.

The EMPACT target group — unemployed and underemployed young people from refugee and host communitiesrepresent an untapped talent pool which can fill this gap. The programme equips them with in-demand tech skills and matches their newly found talent with IT vacancies in private sector companies. It’s a win-win outcome: young people find stable jobs and generate life-saving income, and employers can hire qualified staff to meet their tech needs. Both contribute to a more productive economy.

“EMPACT is part of WFP’s broader livelihoods support programme in Turkey which aims to empower young people between 18 and 35 years old — helping them move from beneficiaries of food assistance to skilled professionals who own their future.”

— Selin Altunkaynak Vodina, Programme Associate at WFP Turkey.

Fighting hunger with code

The first cohort of EMPACT in Turkey launched in Istanbul with outreach activities aimed at low-income youth and selection criteria designed to promote diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. For example, since women make up only 17% of tech talent in Turkey, at least half of the participants in each group are female. Out of 100 young people selected for the first cohort, almost half of them are Syrian refugees.

Turkey had a greater influx of people fleeing conflict than any other country and hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Photo: WFP/Deniz Akkus.

EMPACT uses best practices to prepare students for the future of work. The curriculum includes classes in software development such as Javascript and Vue.js, English language training, as well as workshops in soft skills like business communication and resume writing. In addition to online courses, the Istanbul cohort went through two virtual coding bootcamps organized by Kodluyoruz, a tech-focused non-governmental organization based in Istanbul. By partnering with the private sector and online working platforms including Microsoft, Fiverr, Tempo Call Center, and ISKUR Employment Agency, EMPACT graduates are linked with online microwork and highly-skilled IT roles.

“This year is special for EMPACT. The curriculum intended for in-person classes was almost entirely redesigned to be held in the form of interactive online sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had to ensure that participants had computers and stable internet to follow the classes.”

— Elisa Molena, EMPACT Project Manager.

From the Bosphorus to the south

As the future of work evolves rapidly, and the global pandemic re-emphasizes the importance of IT literacy, EMPACT will continue creating new employment pathways for young refugees and youth from host communities in the technology sector.

Having embraced both in-person and virtual training modules, the pilot in Turkey will continue expanding in 2021 to nine more provinces: Bursa, Ankara, Konya, Izmir, Mersin, Gaziantep, Hatay, Sanliurfa and Adana. Over the next two years, it will empower 1,000 young people to move from poverty into meaningful careers.

Read more about EMPACT

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

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