‘There are people in Sweden who can open doors for you – just look for them’

MY SWEDISH CAREER: For journalist Ali al-Abdallah, a move from Syria to Sweden became his ultimate commission.

'There are people in Sweden who can open doors for you – just look for them'
al-Abdallah first came to Sweden from Syria in 2013. Photo: Noor Kabtool

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.”

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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.”

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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

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EXPLAINED: How do you apply for Sweden’s new ‘talent visa’?

From June 1st, non-EU citizens can apply to come to Sweden on the new talent visa or "resi­dence permit for highly quali­fied persons". These are the latest details on how to apply.

EXPLAINED: How do you apply for Sweden's new 'talent visa'?

Sweden’s “resi­dence permit for highly quali­fied persons to look for work or start a busi­ness” was voted through parliament in April as part of a set of changes to the country’s new work laws in April.

The visa was brought in as part of the January Agreement between the economically liberal Centre and Liberal Parties and the Social Democrat government. 

The basic form for the new talent visa was published when parliament voted it through: The visa allows non-EU citizens with a higher-level degree to apply for a visa of between three to nine months, which they can then use to stay in Sweden while they look for work or research setting up a new business.  

But the Migration Agency on June 1st published the details of what exact educational requirements are required to be eligible for the new visa, how much money applicants need to show they have to support themselves, and how and where to apply. They also published the form that needs to be filled in

What counts as an advanced-level degree and how do I prove it? 

The bar is set pretty low. To be eligible for the talent visa, applicants need to have a degree corresponding to at least a 60-credit Master’s degree, a 120-credit Master’s degree, a professional degree worth 60-330 credits, or a postgraduate/PhD-level degree.

You need to send copies of any examination certificates along with your application, as well as copies of the official transcript of your academic record, that shows the courses included in your education. 

If these documents are in a language other than English, French, Spanish, German, or a Nordic language, they have to be translated into Swedish or one of the above languages by an authorized translator.

You also need to print out, sign, scan, and send a letter of consent to the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR), allowing them to contact the educational institutions where you studied for your higher-level degree.

What financial assets do I need to show and how do I prove them? 

You must need to show that you have enough money (or a source of regular income) to support yourself during the time that you will be in Sweden, as well as enough to pay for your journey home. The Migration Agency judges that you need 13,000 kronor per month, so you need a lump sum of 117,000 kronor (€12,000). 

Source: Migration Agency

To prove that you can support yourself, you must either submit copies of your bank statements (plus a translated version if necessary). If you have another source of regular funding, you can explain in the ‘other’ box on what you intend, and enclose documents to support this.

What insurance do you need? 

You need to confirm that you have signed a comprehensive health insurance on the form, and also name the insurance company and the dates between which the insurance policy is valid. 

The insurance needs to cover the costs of emergency and other medical care, hospitalisation, dental care, and also the cost of repatriation for medical reasons. You need to enclose a copy of a document setting out the terms of your insurance policy. 

Source: Migration Agency

What do you need to write about your plans for Sweden? 

According to the Migration Agency, the visa is for people living outside the EU who “plan to seek employment or explore the possibilities for starting [their] own business”, but the form gives few guidelines as to what will count. 

In the form, there is a space for a few sentences in which you can say what sort of business you plan to start, or which sort of job you intend to look for, as well as whether you intend to leave Sweden, or apply for residency in another way if you fail to secure a job. 

Carl Bexelius, the Migration Agency’s Head of Legal Affairs, said that there was no requirement in the legislation that those with the new talent visa seek jobs that require them to be highly qualified. 

“The crucial part is that you have you are talented in a legal sense, that you have the appropriate education to qualify. If they find work, they can then apply for for a work permit, but that work does not need to require high qualifications.”

Other requirements? 

The other requirement is to have a passport that is valid for the full period in which you will be in Sweden. In the application you need to send copies of all the pages that show your personal data, photo, signature, passport number, issuing country, period of validity, entry stamps, and also if you have permission to live in countries other than your country of origin. 

How to apply? 

You need to send the application form, with the attached documents to the Swedish embassy or consulate-general in your country of residence, or, if that is not possible, at the embassy or consulate-general in the closest country. 

You should contact the embassy for information before applying, and to learn how large an application fee you will need to pay. 

What sort of permit will I get? 

If you get a permit valid for more than three months, you will get a residence permit card which features your fingerprints and a photo.

If you need an entry visa to come to Sweden, you will need to be photographed and have your fingerprints scanned at the Swedish embassy or consulate-general in your country of residence before leaving to come to Sweden.

If you do not need an entry visa, you can apply for a residency card, and have your photo taken and your fingerprints scanned, after your arrival in Sweden. 

What happens if I get a job or start a business while in Sweden? 

If you get a job while in Sweden, you can apply for a work permit from within the country. You cannot start work until the work permit is granted, though (which may not happen until after your talent visa has already expired). 

If you start a business in Sweden, you can apply for a residence permit as a self-employed person. You can start setting up and running your business even before the Migration Agency has made its decision.