Gaza: Hot-desking twentysomethings type code into laptops covered with stickers.
Retro Pac-Man graffiti and motivational slogans like “DO EPIC THINGS” adorn the walls.
Bookshelves are filled with the tech classics: The Facebook Effect and The Founder’s Dilemmas. WiFi routers hang overhead, as do Edison bulbs, emitting more style than actual light.
But this is not the San Francisco Bay Area. No electric cars quietly whirr by.
Instead, this is Gaza, with its cracked streets and checkpoints manned by militants. On the perimeter of this impoverished coastal enclave are Israel and Egypt, countries that have blockaded this tiny slice of land for years.
Tight restrictions on the movement of goods and, vitally, people, have been the death of much industry here.
But Gaza’s first coding academy hopes its hi-tech business model — which operates in the virtual rather than real world — will be somewhat immune to physical barriers to trade.
“That’s the reason we started this. It ignores boundaries,” says 31-year-old Ghada Ebrahim, who was in the first class of coders, which started a year ago.
“The blockade is a huge factor. It’s a reason why we have a lot of people who have come to sign up.”
With funding from international charities such as Mercy Corps and significant tech world players such as Google, the academy provides two basic requirements its students need for a freelance career developing websites and apps: internet and electricity.
In Gaza, that means paying for a generator to supply 10 hours of laptop juice a day.
“We do something that no one can cut off,” Ebrahim says, then stops herself mid-sentence and pauses for a few seconds.
She adds, smiling: “Although maybe they can.”
Israel provides Gaza’s internet, and as yet has never cut it off.
Sixteen students (half female as a rule) enrolled in the first class, which had international support from Founders & Coders, a UK-based non-profit providing free coding lessons.
Ebrahim recalls a slightly haphazard programme: eight hours a day where students were expected to self-learn coding and present a weekly project.
Of the original 16, only nine graduated.
“We had a lot of problems,” she says.
“It was supposed to be one month. It went on for six months.”
She says the students, several of whom had degrees in information technology, struggled to adapt to self-taught techniques following a lifetime of parrot-fashion schooling: they continually looked to the teacher when stuck.
“We all grew up to be taught by someone. It’s never self-learning,” she says.
To combat this, the class implemented what Ebrahim calls the 20/20/20 rule.
When encountering an issue, students spend 20 minutes trying to figure it out online, then 20 minutes with the help of another classmate.
The final 20 minutes are with the help of a mentor.
It works. The class after Ebrahim’s had 12 graduates, and the one after that had 14.
The fourth cohort is currently ongoing with all 16, she says, looking into the classroom, “but it’s only the third week.” And while the first classes had support from professional coders, all the mentors are now former students. It’s self-perpetuating.
Moamin Salamah Abu Ewaida, 34, is the engagement and development manager at tech hub and co-working space Gaza Sky Geeks, which launched the coding academy last year. What is essential, he says, is that freelance business skills are also taught at the academy.
Each student is trained how to pitch to international clients and use job-finding websites such as Upwork, a global freelancing platform. For real-world practice during the course, local businesses and charities are offered pro bono web development work.
And, crucially, Gaza Sky Geeks helps its graduates get paid, in a place that many financial institutions avoid for fears of money laundering, not to mention the fact that its de facto government has been on a US “foreign terrorist” blacklist since 1997.
Gaza Sky Geeks has partnered with banks and online payment systems that can verify its credentials. Graduates have already started developing websites for international clients in Europe.
“Our end goal is to use tech as a gateway. This area [Gaza], it could be the next Berlin or Dublin,” says Abu Ewaida. He warns against dismissing that dream, and says the conditions are there for a thriving freelance coding community to develop: “We have the talent. And the price for us is a little bit less than others. We can deliver.”
And, regardless, “This place can give more than opportunity,” he says. “It can give hope. It’s emotional more than professional.”