A Young Syrian’s Quest to Bring Digital Literacy to Her Hometown

With support from UNICEF, 24-year-old Bayan Mandou, is transforming access to digital literacy opportunities one workshop at a time

Lina Alqassab
Instructor helps youth using computers
13 August 2019

Homs, Syria, 12 August 2019 - When Bayan Mandou graduated from the Faculty of Information Technology Engineering four years ago, her hometown of Homs was still straining from the impact of recent fighting. To help her community, she enrolled in a UNICEF-supported life-skills development training, then volunteered at a local NGO to be a life-skills trainer herself, working with children and adolescents to help them develop the skills they need to cope with the demands and challenges of life during on-going conflict.

Bayan had a lot to offer - as passionate programmer, she always looked for ways to challenge herself. While working as a life-skills trainer she continued to seek out national and regional computer programming contests to put her skills to the test. 

'Hello, World!’ is usually the first piece of code written by programming newcomers all over the globe, this is also a mission statement for me, by introducing digital literacy to my community, a whole new world opens up for them

Bayan Mandou
a teacher explaining to children

“Very often, I was the only girl in national teams,” recalls Bayan, “the team spirit was also very poor; group members preferred keeping ideas for themselves rather than sharing them with their peers. This kept us from reaching the finals despite our skills and talent.”

That’s when Bayan decided to take matters in her own hands. Using life-skills training materials she had kept from a few years back, she added a computer programming component that was easy and appealing to young people and her ‘Hello, World!’ initiative was born.

“’Hello, World!’ is usually the first piece of code written by programming newcomers all over the globe,” explains Bayan, “this is also a mission statement for me, by introducing digital literacy to my community, a whole new world opens up for them.”

Girls using laptops

With financial support from UNICEF, Bayan started her first two workshops with adolescents two years ago, “It was very important to keep things simple. The project’s idea was to engage more sectors of the community in digital literacy and to expand the training to subjects like algorithms, web design and mobile applications.”

Bayan also introduced programming as a way of dealing with life problems, a way to think and process information logically; “Once I opened the floor, tons of creative ideas started pouring in; participants started to perceive computer programming as a way of thinking and even living, which was my ultimate goal.”

Within the first year of the initiative, she managed to get a team of her adolescent trainees to compete in the annual national programming competition with 25 other teams of information technology academics. To everyone’s surprise, the very young team ranked 10th in the competition - quite the achievement for young beginners!

Girls using laptops
UNICEF/Syria/2019/Gheras Media Team

The number of girl participants also started growing with her support and a special category for child coders was also created in the national competition. One of her trainees, 11-year-old Aya, won two national programming awards.  

In the second year of ‘Hello, World!’, courses tailored for children were introduced online. But Bayan faced resistance from some parents, “I met many children who were discouraged from studying programming by parents who simply don’t know anything about the topic. So, the obvious solution was educating the parents too!”

Bayan organized an introductory course in programming for mothers. “It was the most fun and rewarding training I’ve ever done.” Bayan remembers happily.

Girls using laptops
UNICEF/Syria/2019/Gheras Media Team

Two years on, Bayan and her team are still working on narrowing the technological knowledge gap between different groups, but there is more behind this gap than just gender and age. Language, for example, is another immense barrier to digital literacy that still isn’t addressed.

Not one to shy away from a new challenge, Bayan stepped up to the task: “I’m currently working with my team on creating Arabic interactive educational content that will be available to millions of Arabic speakers on our digital platform.” And finding a way to activate digital education in schools is on her agenda as well.

an adolescent in front of a laptop