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Syrian refugee girls attending Girls Got IT, a weekend workshop that engages young women in technology and science (Moftah Productions).

Getting their geek on

A welcome ray of light in the hard knock lives of these Syrian refugee girls

By Anna Therese Day on January 10, 2017

BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON — At 8 a.m. sharp, the school buses arrived to Lebanese International University (LIU) from various refugee camps across Bekaa Valley. Within an hour, the campus filled with hundreds of bubbling Syrian refugee girls, “ready to hack,” as one 14-year-old beamed.

It was dawn, and the sun rose slowly over the snowcapped summits of the nearby Ash-Sharqi mountain range, Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.

Though home for these girls lay just 20 minutes beyond the jagged silhouettes of the peaks, the mountains’ long shadows cast a darkness into the Valley that pronounced the true distance between these girls and their home — a proximity obscured by politics, miles and separation elongated by war.

Yet, in the company of hundreds of other teenagers and full day’s worth of work ahead, the nearby tragedy of their homeland seemed worlds away. A coalition of Lebanese women technologists were hosting Girls Got IT, a science and entrepreneurship workshop where 17 leading technology companies had donated their weekend to encourage girls to pursue careers in innovation.

“We’re led by five women’s technology non-profits that, in the past, hosted events for students and professionals in Beirut. But we decided to pool our efforts and work with UNICEF to have a greater impact on Lebanon’s biggest challenge: the Syrian refugee crisis in the Bekaa Valley,” Mona Itani of Girls Got IT explained.

“That’s why we’re outside of Beirut, right on the Syrian border, bringing these resources to the girls that need them most. We want to remind these Syrian girls that, despite the horrible situation, they have potential and that perhaps this potential can be used in IT fields.”

Currently, Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees, nearly a quarter of the small country’s total population. In Lebanon, like in many host nations, Syrians increasingly face racism and discrimination, compounding the many struggles already endured by refugee families since the war began nearly six years ago.

For children, the stakes are even higher, particularly when it comes to education. UNICEF estimates that more than half of Syria’s school-aged children are out of school. Of those in Lebanon, at least 48 percent of primary school students are out of school, with the lowest rates of attendance (30 percent) in the Bekaa Valley. That percentage swells to 84 percent when tracking secondary school attendance among adolescents. And only an estimated 6 percent of adolescent girls living in the Bekaa Valley attend school.

Four Syrian refugee girls hard at work while attending a Girls Got IT workshop. (Moftah Productions)
Four Syrian refugee girls hard at work while attending a Girls Got IT workshop. (Moftah Productions)

One participant, a 16-year-old named Amani, worked diligently and energetically through her design thinking workshop, hosted by TOP Design HD, a Beirut-based firm. She and 15 other girls buzzed through their day, problem-solving and strategizing around the workshop’s challenges. The girls were eager to succeed before the day’s end, particularly since a full scholarship to LIU awaited one lucky high-achiever.

“We don’t get this training or exposure to companies, so this is a big opportunity for us,” Amani reflected excitedly at her lunch break. Her tone changed quickly, however, as she reflected on Syria. Amani is from Homs, one of the many cities decimated by the war. She, like many Syrian refugee girls, survived the trauma of war only to be forced into the hardships of refugee life.

“I was a good student, but it took a long time to get into school here [in Lebanon] and then adjust. I was held back two grades … It was very frustrating … And embarrassing,” she explained, wiping away a sudden stream of tears. “It’s just so beneficial for us. I’ve never been to something like this before, there’s never been something like this before for us, and it helps me remember we have a chance.”

The Syrian girls, however, were not the only participants inspired by the day’s events. The sponsors too left invested in the Girls Got IT mission.

“We were amazed by the energy, motivation, and skills,” said Sabine el Kahi, an engineer and founder of Kids Genius, one of the workshop sponsors. “We didn’t know what the level of the girls’ digital literacy would be, but they far exceeded our expectation. They were so curious, so hungry for mentors … I gave my phone number and one is already WhatsApping me!”

“There weren’t many women in my field growing up, so I want these girls to know that girls can become engineers, they can become technologists, but also that they can become bosses,” Sabine explained at the conclusion of the day. “These girls have really huge challenges, but they still came on their weekend with all their energy today. If you can equip someone with that kind of determination with some technical skills, she can have so much potential as an entrepreneur.”

As the buses returned at sunset, the girls congregated in the cold twilight, taking selfies and exchanging contact information with the sponsors and each other. Amani and her friends proudly shared their certificate of participation and their plans for the future: to build a business idea out of their workshop.

“It reminded me that I can succeed and that there are women, even here in Lebanon, who want me to,” Amani said, pointing to the crowd of women technologists and Syrian refugee girls.

“Today no one told us it will be an easy path, we all know what it means to be a Syrian refugee and a girl, but we’re just thankful to have the opportunity and to have someone who believes in us.”

Anna Therese Day was on assignment for The New York Times Daily 360. Join the girls in their workshop in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley through this immersive 360 video. Use the toggle in the lower right corner of the video player to view the room in all directions or put on a 360 headset.

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Anna Therese Day is an award-winning independent journalist. Follow her work in the field on Twitter, Instagram and on Facebook.