Back in Syria Rowa Alkhatib worked as a presenter for a range of television and radio networks, but threats from radicals and the Assad regime forced her to pack her bags, she says.
Like so many others in Syria, she made her way to Turkey, where she found radio work and lived for almost a year and a half. She didn’t feel safe there, however.
“After a few Syrian Journalists were assassinated in Turkey, I thought it was better to leave. So I fled to Sweden.”
Arrival in Sweden – what next?
She was housed at an asylum centre near Gothenburg in August 2014. The journey sapped her strength and her nerves were shot, but she got a lot of help.
“I am very grateful to this country,” she says.
Once she was back on an even keel she started looking for work with Swedish media companies – without any immediate success.
“The answers were shocking. They told me It wouldn’t be possible to get a job before mastering Swedish, despite my advanced skills in English.”
But she was equal to the challenge. She moved to Katrineholm to be closer to the capital’s media hub, and she set about learning the language.
Back in journalism – from springboard to exciting new job
Soon she was taken on as a language trainee with the local Katrineholms-Kuriren newspaper, “mostly translating news from Swedish and presenting it in Arabic”. This helped put her career back on track.
A production company learned of her presenting prowess and asked if she would be interested in co-hosting an Arabic radio talk show with the Syrian comedian and YouTube star Mahmoud Bitar. She jumped at the chance.
Mahmoud Bitar and Rowa Alkhatib. Photo: Helene Almqvist/Sveriges Radio
The twenty-minute show starts by giving listeners an insight into the lives and challenges faced by newcomers to Sweden.
It also features a comedy sketch. In the first show Alkhatib hosted, the comic Bitar “was looking for his dad’s buddy, only to discover he was the Swedish king.”
With just two shows under her belt she says it’s too early to gauge its success.
Better integration through more media in Arabic
“But in general I know that the Arabic community in Sweden is always thirsting for news about the country,” she says.
“People want to stay up to date, especially those who are not yet highly skilled in Swedish.”
Helping to bridge Arabic speakers’ knowledge gap in Sweden is one of the things that motivates her most in her professional life, says Alkhatib.
“I think it’s my role and my duty to help people with their need for ‘uplifting’ news, and by that I help with integration.”
She’s pleased too that Swedish media are reaching out to the country’s minorities, “and I deeply believe there has to be more.”
Far from having an alienating effect, Arabic language programming can help newcomers quickly get up to speed with their surroundings while they are learning Swedish, she says.
“Most international media publish in Arabic nowadays, and in Sweden it has become almost the second spoken language nationwide, so why not?
“We really wish to be part of this society, a positive, sparkling force that adds more than it takes – we don’t want to be a negative group that the Swedes regret welcoming.”
Photo: Helene Almqvist/Sveriges Radio