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.
MALMO—Ruba Shamout, a 26-year-old Syrian-Palestinian student preparing to resume her academic studies in Sweden, believed she would have a chance to start fresh if she could reach Europe.
“I was so eager to arrive to the European Union,” she said. “I have always dreamed of being appreciated. After 2011, the situation in Syria became unbearable and I felt I was lost to it.”
Three years after attending her last class in Syria as a biomedical engineering student, Shamout continues to reflect on her journey to this point, and to work toward what comes next. Her journey from Syria, where war has torn the country and forced millions to flee, to Sweden was full of risks, loss and sorrow.
Increasing and pervasive violence and instability have severely affected the Syrian educational system (see related story: Damascus Campus Shelled: Syrian Students Struggle). While some students in the country have had to drop their studies due to rising costs, the risk of being caught in the conflict have prevented thousands of others from attending classes.
Shamout was born and raised in Yarmouk Camp, a home to Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee community, and traveled daily to her faculty along the Airport Highway in eastern Damascus. Although the distance was just four kilometers, the trip sometimes took hours because of numerous checkpoints.
During a midterm exam in 2011, she was horrified to hear gunshots and see blood on the desks and floor of an exam hall—a fellow student had shot two of his classmates dead, apparently for political reasons. “It was extremely terrifying,” Shamout said. “I knew [the killer] personally. It was unbelievable.”
Frequent shelling of the camp and harsh life conditions pushed her father to look for a chance to leave the country. The family’s attempts to go to Canada, where they have relatives, or even to Lebanon, were met with bitter disappointment. “We learned that some people were trying to take our money in exchange for empty promises” to help us, she said. Later, the family decided to travel from Turkey to Greece on a raft. While her father was against it, Shamout said she declared that “even if I have to swim, I will go!”
In July of 2013, she was the first in her family to make made the voyage to Greece, alone. It took four-and-a-half hours in the middle of the night. Her family followed. After being interrogated by Greek police, the family was detained for a month in an internment camp with no food and little water.
“We cried so much. The bathroom and food were terrible, and my mother regretted that we had come,” she said.
Finally, Shamout and her family arrived in Sweden, among thousands of other refugees who have arrived at the Nordic nation in recent years. Shamout is now restarting her studies from scratch. “My official documents that prove my three years of previous engineering study were useless and unacceptable, so I have to start at the beginning,” she said.
After Germany, Sweden was the top destination for asylum seekers entering Europe last year, with a record 163,000 people seeking shelter there. Skill levels among new arrivals vary widely. They are not always low—more than one-third of Syrian refugees in Sweden are highly educated. A report by a Swedish public television station found that among immigrants who arrived in 2014, more than one in three Syrians had college or university-level education. Indeed, the report’s conclusion was that the recent wave of Syrian refugees had given Sweden its biggest influx of academics ever.
Still, significant challenges remain, and chief among them is language. “You cannot really integrate without it,” Shamout said. “Even if you speak perfect English, you will need to speak the country’s language to be part of society.”
Sweden offers all immigrants a free basic language program to help them integrate called Swedish for Immigrants. About a third of the 13,464 refugees between the ages of 18 and 57 who arrived in Sweden in 2007 completed the entire language program, according to a report by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. There are a number of reasons why more refugees don’t complete the program, the paper reported. Some find the courses to be too long or too tough, others get a job or internship, and some rely on English as a means of communication.
Shamout finished the program in just three months, far less than the usual time. She credits her success in Sweden in part to the rigor of the Syrian educational system. “Without it, I would not have been able to compete here,” she said. “We used to memorize everything by heart. Even physics, chemistry, and mathematics. It may seem like a useless system, but it helped me.” Shamout is starting an undergraduate program in pharmacy this fall. “It was not easy and it won’t be so, but to achieve a dream you have to work hard for it,” she says.