Why did I start RefugeesCode and what do I want out of it


The initial reason why I started caring about refugee rights issues was that I have been on various temporary visas in Australia for seven years now, and almost every two years I had to go through the visa application process again which questions my whole existence. Over and over again, each time for a different visa, I had to squeeze myself into a box of a different shape so I can get through to the temporary storage and then think about how I can get to the next one so I don't get dumped off the road. I am exactly the person Australia wants, I'm healthy and abled (if you don't know this, Australia doesn't give people with disabilities/some illness visas because they will be a "cost" instead of an "asset" to Australia), I have the skill they want and a job they are desperate to get people to fill. Yet when people ask me what the problem is and why can't I just get a permanent visa and get it over with, I don't know what to explain. When I see news about refugees stuck in bridging visas for years, I always feel it must be so hard for them, I am someone Australia wants and it is hard for me, I can't imagine being someone Australia trying to get rid of.

Then it comes to a tipping point when once again, I had to pay another $500 to take an English test to prove that I speak basic English because English tests "expire", and again I had to prove I was born, I had to ask a thousand people to sign some documents so I could prove in three different ways that I had been working my job. I felt my life stuck in this meaningless loop that I had to find meaning somewhere otherwise I can't go on anymore. So I thought - If you (Australia) don't like me here, I am going to get more of us here.

It started with my childish revenge. It is childish because it doesn't make sense, the "Australia" I mean here is more the bureaucratic structure of Australia instead of the Australian people. Australian people have nothing against me and I have nothing against them, if I do manage to help refugees in some way they would probably tell me "Good job", and I can't pull them back and explain "No no no, it's supposed to make you feel bad, now you ruined my revenge". It would be easier if you want revenge against a person, let's ignore the consequences and feasibility here and imagine, we go up to a person and punch them in the face, watch them in pain and feel the satisfaction for a moment then walk away. But how do you revenge against a structure that's deliberately designed to not care? It's like you want to punch someone but there is no one, not even a wall so you make a gesture in the air which only makes you feel even worse because it made no difference and the structure stays there as it has always been. So that revenge idea is really a road to nowhere.

But anyway, I had to make the statement at least to myself to distance myself from this structure because I come voluntarily to join this structure that does evil to people's lives for selfish reasons, and continue to pour money and effort into it so it goes on, it is just immoral without any excuses. When China does bad things, I could say well I was born there and it wasn't my choice to be Chinese, and there is nothing I can do about the situation, and I left so I am not part of that anymore. That's often my excuse, and you could argue the same if you are an Australian living in Australia. But since I am somewhere else, I can't use the excuse anymore, I came here because I wanted a better life for myself, and that better life is built on a structure that destroys people including me, and I pay and work for that structure. I had to do something to mitigate the evil that I do either directly or indirectly. So here I am.

What do I want

I want to help refugees help people

The initial idea is to help refugees and it is still the core idea behind this group, but what "help" means has expanded this past year as I went along.

At first, I wanted to help refugees become software engineers because refugees are facing a lot of uncertainties. For those on bridging visas, they have no idea how long they can be here and if one day they have to go to another country, and also they have no right to study even if they get admitted into universities and would pay for it themselves. Some people on community detentions have no work rights even so they can't work and get paid in Australia. I thought software engineering could be a good fit because it's flexible and requires no certifications or registration to get a job as long as you can demonstrate the skills, so they can be self-taught instead of going to uni to get a degree, they can work remotely for companies oversea if they are not allowed to work and if they have to go to another country one day they wouldn't have to retrain themselves as the way software engineers work is very similar everywhere.

With the idea in mind, I started a small study group so I could help everyone with every little thing and thought if we all try hard they could get into the field within half a year. It sounded like a good idea but only when I started doing it, I realised it wasn't as easy as I thought. There are so many things when we are used to them, we take them for granted and forget how hard some things are to understand. When I went back home to China recently after four years away, everything goes wrong in the first few weeks. I couldn't walk across the road because I was too scared. I had to take a taxi somewhere but ended up taking twice the time and twice as much because as a software engineer I couldn't work out how to use the app. I went for a bike ride and fell off the bike even though I ride my bike every day in Melbourne. My family was making fun of me and I couldn't make sense to them the things they found easy are based on a complex web of concepts they accumulate over the years, and when one of them is missing, the link is broken and you have to take a leap and hope you will land in the right place. And when you have gaps and holes in your understanding of the world, everything that could go wrong will go wrong. I was making the same mistakes here. The people I worked with had spent nine years in detention and were released half year before we met. So managing everyday life is hard, and learning is hard. And on top of that, they have to work super physically demanding jobs in factories. I have been learning to see things their way and work at their pace.

In the meanwhile, I have also learned that just as I like to help people and it's a way to make my life meaningful, they like to help me wherever they can. There is no clear boundary between helping and being helped, letting people help is a way to help too. And helping them become software engineers is still the long game but helping them help more people could be a quick win too. So that's one of the reasons I moved the study group idea to coding workshops open to everyone.

Not only my friends can help other people with coding, but also they can help others understand what is it like to be in a situation like this as they have helped me. And I would like to change the narrative that refugees are people in need of help, they are people who are capable of helping and keen to help. So I want it to be workshops inclusive of everyone where people can come and help and be helped at the same time.

I want more people to help with the things that I can't do

When I realised that my friends were doing such physical work and such long hours and they just have no extra energy to focus on learning, my thought was to get them into an entry-level office job first. I tried asking around if anyone knows someone that has a job available, I tried messaging a few recruiters and see if they are taking people, I tried sitting down with them and applying for some jobs online, and I tried getting someone with similar experience to edit their resumes. There was not much result, and we couldn't even get feedback on what was wrong and what we can improve. It was just too hard when you have a ten-year gap on your resume and a visa that expires every six months and you have no idea what will happen after that. I wanted it to be a small group initially because I wanted it to be personal so we could help each other with every aspect, when the group gets bigger we tend to lose the personal level and are less willing to help each other. Then I realised the limitation of a small group, when we tried our best and couldn't do it we have no one else to go to. That's another reason I wanted to do coding workshops, with more people coming and there will be people who are good at doing different things, so when my friends and I need help, hopefully there will be someone who can help us.

I want more people to come to the protests and rallies

I have been going to refugee rallies and sometimes help give out leaflets about refugees' situation in the country. I understand the importance of activism and admire people who persevere and keep on going because it's the right thing to do. They feed on the thin air and yet I get defeated by the smallest wind. I go to two rallies and I think it's just the same people who are coming, nothing is ever changing, and there is no justice in this world. And two people ignore me on the street and I can't bring myself up to hand out those leaflets again and hide behind the stall waiting for people to come to me, when people do come and I try to explain what we do awkwardly and it turned out they understand the situation better than me. And I think what's the point of this, people who will talk to us are those who already care about the issue. I feel discouraged all the time so I want to try it my way. If the message is too harsh when people are out on the streets, I want to work it softly into people. I'm hoping I would get people who are not so aware of refugee rights issues or those people who are aware but don't know what they can do but are interested in learning to code into my workshops. It is using coding as a medium (or bait) to get their attention and then they might come to understand the situation a little better and get a little nudge from other people and eventually join people on the streets. That's another of my sneaky goal.

I want to work with more people than... men

Last one is very personal. Men dominate the software engineering field, at my job, or most places I look, there are mostly men, even though very diverse in ethnic and cultural background, there are barely any other people. When I go to job interviews, I always ask "How many women are in your team", and the answer is almost always an awkward "Hmm... but we have a woman in marketing" or "We are looking, but you know how hard it is". I know how hard it is. One time I was at a meetup and met a woman and she complained about being the only non-men in the team, and we ended up trying to persuade each other to join our team and we both failed. I like my colleagues but I would like to work with and see other people in the field too. That's why I put "Activists, Women, Queer, Climbers, Cyclists" before "Everyone" just to be a little more specific and see if that would attract more of my people into the field. And men, please don't take offense.

Thank you for reading this long post, this is my idea of the group now and it will definitely change as more people come along. If it sounds interesting, please come join us, using code as a medium we can shape our community together and bring a little joy to each other.