News & Reports

A Syrian in Sweden Sees New Career Vistas

This article is one in a series of profiles of young refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people and their efforts to get education and employment.

MALMÖ—As Ahmad Abu Hashim, 30, sat a pub at the Möllevångstorget, Malmö’s most cosmopolitan square, a Swedish lesbian couple carrying their baby approached him saying Hur mår du? (How are you?) Although Abu Hashim, with his long beard and black hair, does not look Swedish, he seems at ease here, with his fluent Swedish, big smile, and willingness to interact with a variety of people.

Abu Hashim is an aspiring telecommunications engineer. He spoke about his birthplace, Aleppo, and about how he got to Sweden.

In February of 2013, Abu Hashim was in a minibus with three home-baked loaves of bread he got from a colleague. Aleppo had suffered from three months without electricity and shortages of food and water. Fresh bread was highly treasured.

Holding the bread tight, Abu Hashim thought of his parents. Soon they can eat, he thought.

Government soldiers stopped the minibus and checked the passengers’ identification. When Abu Hashim was asked if he had finished his military service, he lied.

– “Yes, I did it in Masyaf [in northwestern Syria]! A colonel was the commander of my company.”

– “Get down, liar!” a soldier replied. “A company commander is usually a major at the most.”

Minutes later, the soldier had discovered that Abu Hashim was a Palestinian-Syrian civil servant at the state-owned Savings Bank. He gave him back his identification card and asked a driver to take Abu Hashim home.

“I was not afraid of army conscription,” Abu Hashim said. “I was worried that I would lose the bread.”

Abu Hashim was not happy at work. Nor did he want to join the army. He had also not had a good experience at university. He said he had 60 professors, but “only five knew what they were doing.”  His dreams were limited before his graduation in 2009. He hoped to start an Internet cafe. He also wanted to do an internship at one of the country’s two mobile operators, but thought it was for the elite or expatriate experts.

To postpone his military service, he registered for a master’s program in a history immediately after getting his bachelor’s degree in 2009. He was not qualified for the degree he really wanted: a master’s in telecommunications. He had no plans to study history; he just wanted the paperwork he needed to avoid military service. He also had an alternate plan up his sleeve: He was studying German in the hope that he might go to study in Germany, where he had already been accepted at a German university.

But all this changed the moment Abu Hashim’s father heard the story about his having been questioned by soldiers about his military service. His father contacted a smuggler to get Ahmad to Turkey.

Opposition fighters took Abu Hashim to Turkey, where he was happy to have electricity for the first time in three months but sad to have left his family behind.

In March of 2013, Ahmad fled from Turkey to Sweden. After getting his residency, in two years he quickly finished the SFI, an official “Swedish language for immigrants” program, and passed equivalency tests for primary and secondary education. Finally, he was accepted into a master’s degree program in wireless communications at Lund University, one of Europe’s premier universities.

He has found Swedish instruction to be demanding and systematic. The best thing about it, he says, is the teachers’ evaluation of their students. Every time a student meets with their language instructor, the students are told where they have been improving, what their current level is, and what they need to do to improve. According to a recent official survey, four out of 10 students in the official Swedish language for immigrants program do not finish the SFI study. “Syrians need to show more seriousness with their language study,” he says.

His parents recently arrived in Sweden, in early 2016, and are studying Swedish. His father wants him to marry a Palestinian girl so he asked a young Swedish teacher, originally from Palestine, to marry Ahmad.

“He proposed on my behalf. Let him marry her himself,” said Abu Hashim, laughing.

Ahmad had been surprised when his Swedish employment counselor asked him about his ambitions. “What do you want to achieve and where do you see yourself in five years from now?” she asked.

“All of those dreams had been erased at the Savings Bank,” Ahmad thought.

“Before that, my life was: I study and I take what is offered to me. Or I study more,” Ahmad said. The Syrian system of dictating programs of study according to exam scores and not personal preferences had left him with little freedom to make decisions about his career.

Today, though, Ahmad knows what he wants. Although he is afraid of studying in English, which is what he will have to do in the master’s degree program at Lund, he wants to become a researcher and university teacher, and he is optimistic about reaching that goal. And unlike in Syria, there are many companies in Sweden where he can work should he decide to leave the university setting.
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