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LEARNING

Gabriel mastered Swedish and got accepted onto a medicine degree in just 7 months

When the response to his university application arrived, Gabriel Shamoun was too nervous to open the letter.

Gabriel mastered Swedish and got accepted onto a medicine degree in just 7 months
Photo: Private

Studying medicine had been his goal for as long as he could remember, and Shamoun has had to overcome more obstacles than most to get there, from studying in Syria during its civil war, to mastering the Swedish language in just seven months.

“I asked my brother to read the letter for me. The moment he said I had been accepted, I was hysterically happy,” remembers the 20-year-old, who will begin his medicine degree at Linkoping University on August 15th this year.

Shamoun grew up in al-Qamishli, Syria, and his studies have always taken a high priority. His parents, a dentist and an ophthalmologist, encouraged Shamoun to focus on his studies despite the tough conditions – even as the war led to water shortages and blackouts as the electricity would go off for hours on a daily basis.

“The greatest difficulty for me was being unable to read for my high school final exams, because the lights went off for hours each day,” he says. “I couldn’t bear the thought of not getting the top grades in my exams – then I wouldn’t be able to study medicine.

“The only solution was to change my routine, so I began waking up at 5am so I could study during daylight, from dawn until sunset.”

Shamoun managed to complete the high school programme with exceptional grades, and kept studying right up until the family left Syria in 2014.

Once they arrived in Sweden that September, Shamoun and his brother were keen to get back to their books straight away, but were told it could take a year to receive their asylum decisions, and they would be unable to start school without a Swedish personal number.


Photo: Private

But having worked so hard, Shamoun wasn’t going to give up on his dream.

He started researching the best way to learn Swedish independently, and came across the story of a Greek immigrant, Thoidor Kalifatides, who had moved to Sweden and mastered the language.

“He inspired me, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” says Shamoun. He went to the library and began reading Kalifatides’ books and a grammar manual, before moving on to Swedish classics by August Strindberg, including Röda Rummet and Fröken Julie.

“A sentence would take me a day to understand and remember; a page took me a week,” remembers Shamoun.

Then he faced another problem: “I discovered these books were written in the classic Swedish, not the language which is used today – when I spoke it, people didn’t understand me!”

Shamoun then adapted his learning, studying modern books, such as the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the Da Vinci code, translated from English to Swedish. He had already read them in Syria, allowing him to grasp the language more easily and progress more quickly.

“My daily routine was reading, eating and sleeping, and after seven months the language became a part of me,” says Shamoun.

In September 2015, the bookworm received his residence permit; by this point, he was getting through one novel each day.

“I immediately ran to the Komvux [Swedish municipal adult education centre] to find out how I could get my Syrian grades converted and complete higher education in Sweden”, says Shamoun. “I was so determined to start university in 2016 and no later!”

After a three-month wait, he was given an appointment with a student counsellor at Komvux, who advised him on his university application. He studied for the courses independently before taking the assessment exams – and passing with flying colours.

His story has been reported in Swedish media, and Shamoun has been praised for being accepted onto one of the most competitive courses after just six months of studying. Now, he can look forward to achieving his dream of becoming a doctor.

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.  

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