Robel had to flee Eritrea in 2013 after struggling to build an education for himself.
He lived on the road in Sudan, Egypt, and finally embarked a clandestine boat to the shores of Italy. There he made an asylum request to live in Switzerland.
The first months were tough. Robel and his wife – who had crossed on the boat with him – had to adjust to a new culture and a new language, all while trying to make a living.
Joining Powercoders was a game changer. There Robel got a chance to capitalize on his skills and actually do what he loves - code.
"I finally could code on a computer. Back in Eritrea, I learned it doing theoretical exercises on paper. I never had a chance to see my codes materialize on a screen."
Just two years after arriving in Switzerland, Robel is interning at UBS (we are partners of Powercoders through our Community Affairs program).
"When I look back at these past seven years, my entire journey, the hardship gets blurred. The last two years in Switzerland went by incredibly quickly. I can barely believe I’ve come so far, so fast."
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Words like luck and career have different meanings to different people. Robel Debesay's story – how he went from master's student to an exile in his own country, to a refugee seeking asylum wherever he could find it, to a coder with a promising career – isn't one most would define solely by luck. Learn how he got there.
Most university students have similar problems – a thesis to defend, a dissertation to finish, a trying part-time job. Most, however, don't have to worry about fleeing their country. So when, in my interview with Robel Debesay, he told me the story of how he was forced into exile shortly after graduating from university in his native Eritrea and then followed up with "I consider myself a lucky person," it drove home a distinct point.
Luck is a very relative term.
After hearing his story, it turns out a lot of Robel's luck, as he called it, had more to do with strength of character and determination. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Why it matters
In September 2015, the United Nations set out a plan for transforming our world by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are aimed at addressing the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. And we've committed to taking part in making them a reality.
So let's backtrack. Robel grew up in a small village in Eritrea called Glas. You won't find it on a map. But it's near to the larger town of Hagaz. He spent most of his childhood shuffled around from town to town in effort to continue his education. In Eritrea, where access to education is limited, students must find their own ways to classrooms, and sometimes, as in Robel's case, they must leave their families for years at a time in order to continue learning.
After years of being routinely uprooted, living and helping in Catholic churches all while trying to get home often enough to give his family the help they needed to farm, Robel finished twelfth grade and was selected to continue on to university.
This was in 2008 and for the next few years, his life would be split between military service (as required by all Eritrean citizens) and the study of mathematics and computer science. He was even selected to continue further with his education into a master's program – an opportunity he welcomed as it would ensure some level of stability and security.
But then something happened which Robel described as "very typical of how things work in Eritrea." The government recanted their offer and instead ordered Robel and his fellow students to take up posts in selected locations. Robel was to be sent to a remote area over 360 kilometers from his family.
"There was only one bus a week," he recalled, "I wouldn't be able to see my family. I wouldn't be able to help them at all."
So he and a few others from his university made a difficult decision. They requested to continue their master's programs instead. Then they had to wait to see how their government would react.
"I was at my grandparents when I got a call from my uncle," Robel told me. "They came looking for you."
That was all he needed to hear. The rest of the story was one he already knew. Arrest would come next. There would be no trial, no judge. He would disappear.
"I couldn't say goodbye to my family. I couldn't tell them where I was going. I had to leave right then."
I asked Robel if, when he left that day, he knew that he would never be able to come back.
"Yes," he said.
What followed was a journey almost Homeric in telling – except Robel wasn't returning home. He was trying to find a new, safer one.
First, he spent three days on foot trying to get through the Eritrean desert, then one day hitchhiking to the boarder. There had another three days of waiting to be able to cross. He didn't know it at the time but the next few years of his life would involve a lot of waiting.
He spent two years as a refugee in Sudan after crossing the border. Work was difficult to come by but he found odd jobs cleaning and doing manual labor. He was barely making enough to survive, let alone any to send home.
Eventually he was able to travel to Egypt where he lived for another year. Work was more difficult to find there as most of the jobs he'd had in Sudan were not open to men.
"I was wasting time," he told me. He repeated that line a few times. I asked him what he meant by that – it took him a total of five years but he eventually reached asylum.
"I'm the oldest in my family," he explained, "I had to take care of them. I had to find a way. I couldn't afford to waste time, knowing they were suffering."
From Egypt, he took a chance on a ship smuggling refugees into Italy and was, if we're using the word, lucky to make it through safely. And from Italy, he sought and eventually received asylum status from Switzerland.
After five years of waiting, taking the jobs he could find, and searching for stable ground, Robel had finally reached a place where building a life was possible but making the transition from running to building would prove difficult.
He wanted to make his education official in Switzerland and remembers talking with an advisor who told him he needed to "find a way to make a career." But how, he wondered, was he supposed to do that with a degree that didn't have any validity and after having spent the last five years outside of his field.
That's when he learned about Powercoders, a coding academy for refugees, which offers a three-month coding boot camp in HTML, JAVA and other coding languages as well as support from working professionals. The program also helps students find an internship.
Through Powercoders, Robel was able to refresh his education and get an internship. And, more than that, the program reignited something that didn't seem possible for the many years he spent seeking asylum – a career. Moreover, a career that will utilize the education he worked so hard to make possible.
The ultimate goal of Powercoders is to give refugees their independence back, reduce social welfare costs and fill open job positions in the IT industry.
Currently there are many vacant IT jobs thanks to the rise of digitalization and this poses a viable solution for refugees to gain employment.
Through our community affairs program, UBS supports Powercoders with volunteers who share their skills and know-how. This is where Robel first met Rachel Kwok within UBS Group Technology, the person who would introduce him to our firm and help him in his internship.
Today Robel has defined what it means to make the best of a difficult situation. After certifying his education through the Powercoders and talking to Rachel, he has an year-long internship with UBS IT.
"If there was a hope that I could get a job in my field, I couldn't wait for that opportunity to come to me," he told me. "My number one goal was to regain my autonomy and help my family back home."