I'm a 25-year-old woman in Gaza. Learning to code changed my life.

By Shahenaz Monia

Because of the extreme circumstances we live in, it’s rare for a Gazan to have full control over their life. We have to jump over so many hurdles to choose the life we want to live, the places we want to go, and the universities we want to study in.

One of the hardest challenges, however, is finding employment. Currently, 70 percent of young people in Gaza are unemployed.

My journey to becoming a software engineer began during my fourth year at university in Gaza City. It was 2015, and though I was about to graduate, I didn’t know where to go or what I wanted to do.

One weekend, I participated in a Startup Weekend event at Gaza Sky Geeks, a tech hub and co-working space run by Mercy Corps where teams of students pitch startup ideas to a panel of judges.

To my surprise, my team was one of three winners. That meant I became a member of the Gaza Sky Geeks community and began gaining exposure to the many entrepreneurs in Gaza. Before long, I was working as a Wordpress developer with my first startup — a business called Mommy Helper, which provides support to new mothers in Arabic.

While I was there, Gaza Sky Geeks launched Code Academy, Palestine’s first full-stack coding boot camp. I knew I wanted to apply. When I was accepted, my career as a software developer began.

My time in the boot camp was some of the best days of my life. Each week we learned a new aspect of web development — things like test-driven development, relational databases, UX design and project management. It was amazing to see our projects get more sophisticated the more we became capable of. One of my team projects was the Room Booker system, a website Gaza Sky Geeks staff still use for booking and managing meeting rooms.

More importantly, though, I was learning how to work on a team, lead a team, and how to rely on myself to learn new techniques.

After graduation, I applied for the Gaza Sky Geeks Freelance Academy, a 10-week mentorship program that teaches students how to build a competitive profile on freelancing platforms like Upwork. I soon delivered my first task as a freelancer and received my first testimonial from an international client.

I still remember it: _“Ms. Monia was a delight to work with, communicated well, and successfully completed the task.’’ _I felt amazing when I read it.

Mercy Corps isn’t just giving students in Gaza the skills to freelance remotely; they’re connecting them with the broader world. Gaza Sky Geeks is shaping new careers, especially for students who aren’t sure what they want to do after university.

That used to be me. Mercy Corps opened the door for me to become a professional software developer. And now I’m inspired to help others find their way, too.

When Gaza Sky Geeks announced it was opening a second Code Academy in the West Bank city of Hebron, I applied as a mentor. Having the chance to leave Gaza and experience the rest of Palestine was one of my dreams. And after three very long months of waiting, my Gaza exit permit was approved. I was so shocked and happy.

Today, I am based in the West Bank as a full-time mentor. I work alongside a diverse team of developers from London and Jerusalem and am experiencing some of the best days of my life meeting new people, seeing new cities, and having new experiences. (One of my very first experiences outside Gaza was ziplining in the West Bank!)

Most of the people who finish Coding Academy don’t just start good careers in the tech field; they also become mentors and role models. That’s why I’m grateful to be part of the Gaza Sky Geeks community — because it allowed me to start my own career, but also because it gave me the opportunity to help others get on the same path.

Gaza Sky Geeks has changed my life. I used to be a university graduate who didn’t know what to do. Now I’m a professional software developer and educator with big ambitions for my future, my students and my community.

Founded in 2011 in partnership with Google and Mercy Corps, Gaza Sky Geeks is the leading co-working space, startup accelerator and technology education hub in Gaza — bringing together freelancers, outsourcers and startup founders under one roof to share ideas, learn, innovate and code. Learn more here.