“I left because there was war in my country, and I had a bit of a journey; I lived in Egypt one year, Turkey one year, and then came to Sweden about four and a half years ago,” Issam, a 30-year-old from Homs in western Syria, tells The Local. “I thought Sweden was a special place for family life, and I came with my family; my parents and my sister.”
To begin with, the family stayed in refugee accommodation while they were awaiting processing. This took a year, and Issam says the hardest part was that he had to spend this time in a kind of limbo rather than beginning to work, volunteer, or even learn Swedish.
In his home country, he had studied information system engineering at the Syrian Virtual University and worked for a small tech company.
“In Sweden, we were ready to start our new life, but it's not easy,” Issam says. “In the camp, we were just waiting — it's like that whole year has just disappeared from my life. It was in a very small village with only forest around, you cannot learn Swedish or start to find jobs.”
Once they had been granted permits to stay in Sweden, after the first year, he moved with his family to Stockholm. Issam started on working a plan put together by the Swedish Public Employment Agency which included certain courses, such as one on understanding Swedish society.
“I learned a lot of Swedish 'rules'; there were a lot of differences compared to my country,” he explains. “One thing that surprised me was the attitude to children — they are given so much freedom here.”
The Syrian native also used this time to take language courses aimed at engineers, and he says that industry-specific Swedish courses are his top tip for any other foreigners looking to break into their field in Sweden.
“Learning Swedish is the number one thing to do,” he says. “I took a Swedish language course for engineers, and it helped me meet people working with IT. I have a mentor and have worked with him for six months now — he's native Swedish and has helped me a lot in understanding the Swedish market,” he explains.
His opportunity to enter the labour market came when his case worker suggested he apply for Jobbsprånget, an internship programme for new arrivals with degrees in certain fields, including engineering. Despite concerns that his English might not meet the native level standard required, Issam attended a meeting to find out more, and filled out the application form and CV.
Swedavia, the state-owned group that owns, operates and develops airports, was first to offer him a position. “It took three or four days, it was do fast!” he remembers.
Issam began work as a front end web developer, which he explains is about “creating images, tools and everything you can see on a website”. That's in contrast to backend developers, who work with code and making things that users don't see.
Being able to see the impact of his work on the site is one of the best parts of the job for Issam, who shows us changes he made to Swedavia's homepage, including the departure listings and waiting times at different terminals.
Compared to his working experience in Syria, he found that Swedish working hierarchies are structured differently, with workers more specialized in certain areas in Swedish companies and divided into different teams.
“I've found it a bit hard to understand the company because it's so big. I meet a lot of people and work on a lot of different things,” he says.
However, fika breaks and after-work drinks, which at Swedavia are sometimes organized by the company but also spontaneously by the employees, have helped him meet people in other teams as well as to practice his Swedish, since the work is usually done in English.
“I think that in Sweden, companies take care of their employees. When I feel stressed, it seems like they want to think about how they can help and make it more comfortable, so maybe someone else will take on parts of a project,” Issam says. “The internship gave me a chance to show the company who I am and what I can do; I think everyone new in Sweden should be open to internships.”
After the four-month internship, he was offered a full-time job with Swedavia. He continues to work mainly with front end development and is also currently working on an application for bus drivers working on routes to and from the airports, which will give them more information about the flights.
“I think I will stay here long-term. I started here from zero and it’s not easy to go up so fast as I’ve done in four years. I almost don't understand whats happened to my life in this short time,” he tells us with a smile. “I think I'm ahead of where I would have been in Syria because I've learned so many new things.”