Having trained as a reporter in Damascus, al-Abdallah arrived in Sweden in September 2013 as a refugee of Syria's civil war. Wanting to unearth the 'real story' in Sweden, he focused on finding a job as a journalist – but found it was more difficult than expected.
“In Syria it's definitely easier to become a journalist. The media is owned privately and by the government, so there are more opportunities to write. In Sweden, there are so many people wanting to work in the industry, you can come up against a bit of a wall.”
But it was his journalistic instinct for forming relationships, curiosity and love of languages that proved his 'in'. His first six months in the country were spent in Glava refugee camp in Värmland, a time he used to establish a network in his new home.
“I didn't sit around and wait for people to come to me; I went to events. I was very active – that was important. You can't sit at home and complain about not having contacts. I made friends with those surrounding me, and everything grew from there.”
Learning the Swedish language was a key focus for al-Abdallah, even from his first days in the country. “Being able to communicate with locals is the key to journalism in Sweden. It wasn't easy but through my network – whether through friends or journalists – I was able to practise and to learn about how I could write articles and interview people.”
The outlook al-Abdallah had received before arriving in Sweden had not been hopeful. From those who had already made the trip he had heard that carving a career would be nigh on impossible, that there was no work to be found for an immigrant with no Swedish. But he cites positive thinking as the determining factor behind his success.
“People told me that it would be hard to be successful here, but I didn't listen to the rumours I heard before coming over. There's power in positive thinking.”
“I don't take any notice of negativity, I let it wash over me. I focused on meeting people, creating my own PR. That's at the heart of what we have to do as migrants – to write our own narrative.”
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Al-Abdallah teaches newcomers to Sweden to focus on creating positive PR around themselves. Photo: Private
His aversion to negativity doesn't mean that he doesn't call out things he doesn't like – in particular, al-Abdallah has been vocal in his criticism of the Swedish media's portrayal of refugees and migrants, which he sees as myopic. “It's one-sided. The Swedish media needs more balance in news coverage. It's not bad to share negative news about migrants, but it's got to be representative of the biggest picture. It's my mission to address that.”
“My feeling has always been that we as migrants in Sweden have a power. We are not helpless people. When I look at Syrians specifically, we came from a war-torn area. Through that we've gained knowledge and experience and have a lot to offer Europe.”
His own journey is a case in point. After five years in Sweden, he has channelled his own first-hand experience into a book aimed at newcomers to the country: Nytt jobb i nytt land (a new job in a new country).
It's the first of its kind: a book aimed at jobseekers who have just arrived in Sweden. It deals with everything from motivating and inspiring to giving advice around how the Swedish job market works. And al-Abdallah wrote it with new arrivals and local authorities in mind – to both help those seeking to access Sweden's society and to aid those working with migrants in understanding how newcomers to the labour market are thinking.
He's sanguine about writing a book in a language in which – by his own admission – he's not fluent. “I have a theory that I really believe in, that nobody is perfect in their mother tongue. Swedes are not perfect in Swedish. I'm not perfect in Arabic. A language takes a lifetime to learn.”
“So, writing in Swedish and making mistakes didn't bother me – plus, publishing houses have editors and copy checkers to correct the language,” he adds.
Despite working in an industry that values words and precision highly, his relaxed attitude towards language applies across every element of his life: “When I give lectures to newcomers to Sweden, I always say: language is always moving, it's like the sea. I give George W Bush as an example to follow – he gets things wrong – even in English – all the time and doesn't let it bother him. You will get it wrong. But you will improve.”
From his new base in Landskrona, a municipality in southern Sweden with approximately 45,000 residents, he's also launched Nyhetscafe (News Café). It seeks to open the media conversation up to citizens and immigrants.
“I started Nyhetscafe as a platform for dialogue. It's what I see as citizen journalism. I interview guests from Swedish society, as well as carrying out live interviews in front of an audience. I ask them about Swedish society, their experiences and their views – and those at the event are able to ask their own questions.”
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“Dialogue is very important in Swedish society. I saw a gap in knowledge around Syrian culture and our background. That's why I started this platform, to give information, to open the channels of communication between immigrants, newcomers and Swedish society, from residents to politicians and decision-makers. There was a real need for this kind of project – it's become very popular in Sweden. I was even given a Diversityindex Award in 2018 for my work.”
Al-Abdallah's perspective is based on his dual background as an immigrant and journalist. He's got a voice representing two sides of the same coin.
“I lecture in refugees' image in the media. I talk both as a Syrian immigrant and journalist. But ultimately, I really believe that we as human beings are very similar to each other. That's part of the reason that I integrated very speedily. I didn't see there as being any barriers, but instead differences in cultures and behaviours. That's all it is.”
Al-Abdallah and his book 'Nytt job i nytt land'. Photo: Private
And there were many cultural and behavioural codes that surprised the journalist when he arrived. The first thing to strike him was Swedes' tendency to live alone, rather than with their families or friends. It's something he sees as a potentially harmful cultural norm.
“As human beings we need each other. We don't feel good if we don't have friends and family around us. Maybe that's why Sweden experiences more mental health challenges. In Syria we live in a much more communal way – family is very important. We meet spontaneously. Here if you want to meet people you have to book a date in.”
On the other end of the spectrum, al-Abdallah found another element of Swedish life hard to decode – the amount of hugs Swedish people give in greeting.
“In Syria we only give hugs to relatives. And sparingly. So that was something I needed to get used to. It was a bit difficult at the beginning. Now I give hugs to everyone. Even when I see other Syrians in Sweden, I give them a hug! I joke with them, saying 'I'm going to hug everyone now, in the spirit of equal treatment!'”
It's been a five-year journey that's led to the journalist feeling settled in his new country. “Sweden's home to me. I go back to Syria occasionally, but only to visit. This is where I live now.”
In planning his next steps, al-Abdallah is looking beyond Swedish frontiers. “I have so many ideas! I want to write another book in Denmark – the Danish version of my Swedish book. So, I'm currently researching for immigrants in Denmark.”
Even with one eye on wider Scandinavia, he's still committed to carrying on the work he's started in the country he sees as having welcomed him, supporting those who've just arrived in pursuing their career dreams. “I want to show people that it's possible to find a job in Sweden – the golden rule is not to be afraid to ask for help here. There are people here who can open doors for you – just look for them.”
MY SWEDISH CAREER: Read more interviews with foreign professionals in Sweden