How WorkWell Gave 97 Refugee Students their Life Back

At first, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be here.

I didn’t feel like standing in a dusty auditorium in Iraq, scrambling because the venue wasn’t ready—even though in about two hours, 97 students were going to walk across the stage and become the first graduates of WorkWell, our new tech space for displaced Syrian and Iraqi students.

A few weeks earlier, Jeremy and I were invited to travel and meet with some of our favorite people around the world. I felt the tension between staying home and seeing the first phase of WorkWell to completion, or traveling the world and getting to tell people about this thing we call preemptive love.

I don’t necessarily think one choice is better than the other. But ever since I said goodbye to Jeremy for the next few weeks, I’ve wondered if I made the right call.

As we worked to get the auditorium in shape, I started wondering: why are we putting all this effort into a graduation ceremony for a 12-week course? After all, it took most of us 12 years to get a piece of paper with our name on it. How meaningful could this really be after 12 weeks?

Then the students started showing up.

They were so excited. Many of them brought their families. They brought their kids—some of whom accompanied them at WorkWell while they learned the skills they need to support their families as freelance coders and designers.

They came dressed in their absolute finest.

One of our students, Yasser, told his mom before the ceremony, “I need a suit for this.” When his mom asked why, he said, “This is special. This is part of what I need to do as a man now.” So he went and bought a suit.

The reason I started WorkWell is that there’s a whole generation of kids who missed their chance at an education, who missed their chance to graduate—and begin careers that would allow them to provide for their families—all because of war. It never occurred to me until this morning that we were giving something back that war had stolen from these students.

This was their graduation. This was the moment that war tried to deny them. This was their chance to shine.

Some of the moms who graduated today walked across that stage with their children in tow. It may not have been the most orderly procession, but to me it’s one of the most beautiful sights: a refugee mom holding her little ones in one hand and the graduate certificate that will help secure their future in the other.

One student who graduated has already found a full-time job paying up to 50% more than the average job in Iraq.

Several have landed freelancing jobs online. Others have found jobs creating websites for local companies. And that’s only the beginning for these students.

It’s just the beginning for WorkWell, too.

For those whose lives were destroyed by war, today offered something to celebrate. It offered a sense of normalcy, a reminder of what their lives used to be—and most importantly, a glimpse of what their lives can become.

While it’s tempting to wish I had gotten on that plane, as I look back through the photos from today, I’m reminded that THIS is worth it. Staying behind and doing the day-to-day isn’t always glamorous. But it’s leading to the more beautiful world my heart knows is possible.

Today might not seem like that a big deal. But today you helped give 97 refugee students their future back.

Help Syrian and Iraqi refugees take their future back. Give today.