The Syrian financial accountant who changed his career in Sweden and tells us how to “breathe like a Swede”
Tell us about when you decided to move to Sweden.
Long story made short, when the war started, I had no other chance than moving somewhere else. Somewhere safer. I’m from Syria, from Damascus. So, I thought Sweden would be a very good option and I decided to move here. It’s safe, it is away from all the problems happening over there and I thought that Sweden would be a good place to pursue an opportunity. I moved in the end of 2016, because I had two options basically; either I could continue my university studies, or I could go somewhere else and start from scratch. I decided to stay, finish my university studies and then move somewhere else.
So you have been here for three years now?
Three and a half.
What was different about moving to Sweden than what you expected?
Well, it was very different. Everything is different. Culturally, people’s mentality, the way the system works. In the beginning, it was really nice. You look at the country from a touristic eye and find it very interesting and a little bizarre in the beginning. Everything is strange. So, you like it for a while and then you get the shock. And you don’t know what the hell you’re going to do.
Tell us about the shock.
Yes, the shock was…as anyone who just finished university, you think now it is going to be vanilla sky, you will get work and start your career and everything. That was not the case. I Sweden, the Syrian universities are not so well-known, and they do not know here if we have the competence that is needed in the job market. I didn’t know what to do.
People didn’t trust your degree?
No, people didn’t trust my degree, I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have a good understanding of how it works here in Sweden…So, basically, I did it in my way, which was wrong. You have to ask for some help, you need to understand from someone else, how everything works. It took some time until I understood that.
When did you start to understand that you had to change your approach or your strategy?
Well actually, when I started to learn the language at SFI (Swedish for immigrants) and started to get more contacts and meet more people. Some people had been here for a long time, some were new like me, and we started these discussions about how one of the main keys for every country is the language. I thought “OK, I will postpone all my plans, and focus on the language for one year and we will see what that will lead to”. During that period, I tried getting myself out of the shock phase, and searched for any kind of work. Anything that would allow me to be self-sufficient, basically.
I started working in Seven Eleven in the afternoons and in the mornings I went to SFI classes. When I was finished learning the language, I tried looking for a job again, but it was really hard. Because, even if you learn the language it doesn’t make that much of a difference. It makes some difference, and it makes a huge difference when it comes to understanding how everything works. But still, you need some professional help. I went to a recruitment company. They tried to match me, but because I am new in Sweden and my situation is a little different, when they took me through the same process as anyone else from Sweden or Europe, it didn’t work out because they did not understand my specific situation. Then I found out about Korta vägen, meaning ”the short way”, a program at Stockholm University. They teach you a little bit about the Swedish legal system and help you add skills to your profile like some accounting and a few computer systems that are more common here in Sweden. You can pick courses, like learning the Office package, things that make you more desirable.
Yes, exactly. Then I got an internship at Wallenius Wilhelmsen Ocean & Solutions, and after three months, they employed me, because I was able to prove myself.
Are you still there?
Nice! It sounds like you went through a lot of steps. You put down a lot of effort to get where you are today.
Yes, and it wasn’t easy.
You expected things to go a little smoother?
Yes, well you know, when I came to Sweden I was 23. At that age, you expect things to be easy. And it wasn’t, it was tough. But what I learnt from that period, when I was unemployed or working with something I didn’t want to do, was that you have to be more flexible and breathe like a Swede. Breathe softly, and take it easy.
Breathe like a Swede? (laughing) I never heard that before!
(laughing) Yes. It’s my way of describing the Swedish people and how they take it easy, and think like “let’s do it later”…they are more cool-minded I would say.
Yes, we are more pushy. I think everyone coming from the Mediterranean are more pushy, in a way. We want to get things done. And it doesn’t work here.
So you have to breathe like a Swede? Does that also mean being patient?
Yeah. More patient. Extra patient.
You were telling me when you started working at Seven Eleven, that was your first job in Sweden. How much Swedish did you know when you started that job?
Well actually, I had another job at the same time working as a personal assistant for a guy with a disability at the Municipality of Stockholm. I started both jobs at the same time, and I was not very good at Swedish.
If you would explain this to someone who doesn’t know any Swedish, what could you say, what kind of phrases? You had two Swedish jobs so you must have known some Swedish?
At the personal assistant job, I worked with a kid who spoke Arabic, which was one of the reasons I got the job, because I speak Arabic. The other job at Seven Eleven, I knew the basics of Swedish, like: “Give me this”, “How much”, “This much” and so on. The phrases you use when standing at a cash register basically, nothing complicated. But it was a bit tough in the beginning, because I was forcing myself to speak Swedish and I knew that if I would start speaking English, I would never speak Swedish. Sometimes I didn’t understand what people were saying, especially if they were asking me something, but I tried making the best of it and learn.
And looking back, that was like the steppingstone for the rest of your career?
Yes. The thing is, working in a store, you learn all the different varieties of the language and you see a lot of different characters. Something you can really build a study on! You see everything, and you start to build an understanding of how the people are divided, how the society really is, because you see everything. And I worked in the city center, so I saw students, teenagers, college student, guys in their forties and fifties, family guy, alcoholic…so yeah. You start to understand what type of society you are living in.
Would you say this job at Seven Eleven was important for you to understand Sweden?
It was crucial. I was, and still am, a very proud person. I never thought I would have that type of job. There is nothing wrong with it, but I was like “I have a university degree, I should have an office job”. You feel like you are better in a way. That job taught me that I am not better than anyone and I will learn from everything. And just be humble. I was not humble. And if you are not humble, you will not go anywhere, especially in Sweden.
Humble is a very positive and nice word. But you are really on to something when it comes to the Swedish job market. You need to be pushy in a way; network, show your skills and so on. But it is also so important to have this kind of humble side, so people do not think you are too aggressive or arrogant. This might be difficult when you are new in Sweden, to understand the nuances of this behavior. Even when just writing your CV or going to an interview. It is a balance that is hard to learn, you kind of need to experience it and practice.
Exactly. As I said, if you do not understand the society you are living in, you will not succeed. We spoke earlier about the types of people, but different types of behavior is important to observe too. Nosy people, crazy people, humble and nice people, helpful people…you acquire a skill of reading people I would say. Now I can read a person by looking at them, so that job was the best thing I ever did. I don’t regret a single moment I was standing at Seven Eleven. I think it was needed for me.
Looking back, is there something you wish you would have known?
I wish I would have known about the many opportunities you have to study here in Sweden. Or about this help you can get through programs to get a job or an internship. Maybe things would have gone faster for me then. The other thing is that I wished I had more contacts. That I had known someone here that could explain things to me. Because I came across some unclarities here, and if I knew someone I could have asked them an honest question. And they could have explained to me how I should do things and how everything works here.
You said some unclarities, could you give an example of that?
Well, for example, if you go to a course at university. I thought it was like our system, in Syria, where you need to go through the entire course, and you cannot choose which subjects to study, you cannot build a study plan, you can only follow one. But here in Sweden, studying is much easier. You can even combine it with working. It is not mandatory to go to attend all the classes at university and things like that. I didn’t know that. That’s why I just applied for next year to Gävle University, to a distance course in project management. I will study it in four years instead of two, so I can take it easy. I didn’t know such things existed! Just the idea of going back to university was not an option for me earlier, I wanted to work.
If you would have had a network before coming here, you could have asked about things like this. Do you have any suggestion on how to network if you are not in Sweden?
Well there are a lot of meetups here, like Språkcafe*. It is not the best place, but somewhere to start. When you go to SFI, you will meet a lot of interesting people. The location makes a big difference. If it is in a small city, big city, where in the city…I was lucky because I went to SFI classes in the city center and the people there were already working or doing something in Sweden. We started to meet up, to talk to each other, explain things to each other. You can also use Linkedin.
And Linkedin, you can use that outside of Sweden too.
Yes, but it’s not easy when you don’t know the person. But you can add a lot of people there. I have 500+ connections on Linkedin, but you cannot really ask an honest question if you haven’t met them. You can do some research there and be formal, but you cannot really get the information that you really need.
You are talking about a type of personal information.
I think one thing that is cool about Linkedin, is that if you follow certain types of people in a certain professional area in a certain place, you start to get an image of that professional field in that country just by looking at your feed. Even without speaking to anyone. And you can kind of see their behavior as well. You were observing people in Seven Eleven. You can also use Linkedin for that. What do they like? What do they share? And what kind of projects are going on in Sweden in your professional field?
Yeah Linkedin is really useful.
What is your favorite thing about Sweden?
Apart from the weather? (laughing)
It’s so cold today too!
Yeah, it’s freezing.
And you came here on your bike!
Yes, it was like 25 minutes to get here, it felt like a punishment.
I’m very grateful you came here!
But apart from the weather, it is a very nice country to feel stable in. To build some kind of stability. It’s not complicated. It’s complicated in the beginning, because you don’t know what’s going on. But then when you really understand how it works, it is just such a simple country. I find other countries way more complicated than Sweden. If you have good friends, and good connections, you can go far.
How do you do this? How do you make friends and good connections?
Just be the person you are and don’t believe in this these impressions people have about the country, build our own impressions. In the beginning, when I first came, I had the idea that Swedish people are not social, it is hard to find work here, even if you are a doctor you will end up driving a taxi…and all this stuff. And some people gave up. Some of them I know, engineers with great skills, but they did not want to make the effort. And be social. The Swedish can be a bit conservative. I have some Swedish friends. A lot of Swedish friends actually, which is quite weird, but anyway (laughing)…What I mean is, just take the initiative. Usually a Swedish neighbor will just say “hi” and then leave. For me, I am Syrian. I will speak to my neighbor, ask him about himself, his work, his wife, his kids, I don’t care, I will ask. Just be yourself. People like differences. A lot of people that I met do. Don’t feel like you are different, because then you will be different. Try to be flexible and look at things from their perspective, to build a better understanding.
Maybe a lot of Swedish people are a little shy as well?
Not with alcohol. (laughing)
That’s true. But maybe the social part comes out if you help out a little bit.
If you push it, absolutely.
Have you made any mistakes in Sweden that you can share with us?
Maybe asking or searching for help a little too late. Trying to figure it out myself first. I took some time before I decided I needed some professional help and I asked for help. Maybe everything would have ended up better? Or maybe not. I am happy with what I’ve got.
You’ve learnt a lot.
Yes. I don’t think that I wasted any time.
It doesn’t sound like it! It sounds like you have kept a very good pace!
I think I learnt a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have been able to learn otherwise. But asking for help is important.
But maybe you didn’t really make a mistake when you look back at it?
Maybe not. You don’t know. I would not be the person I am today, I would not be as humble I would say.
You told us about the importance of networking, of understanding the culture, opening your mind to learning in different environments, asking for help, being prepared to work with something different than what you were planning to and to use all the opportunities that are out there in Sweden. Any other advice for someone who wants to move here?
Don’t stick to your profession. I am a financial accountant and I studied business administration. But I ended up working with logistics. And I thank god for that, because I think that I would not find it as fun working in accounting as it is now working with logistics. Be open for change even in your career plans. Whatever you studied, maybe you will find something more interesting. Try it! If you get the chance, seize it. Whatever it is. Because it might end up being better than what you planned.
You bring up something very interesting. I think in a lot of countries, but in Sweden specifically, this quality or personality trait; to be open to change when it comes to working, is so important today because the job market changes all the time. If you don’t have a very specific profession, then this idea of being open for change is such an important quality to have today. Very good advice. I approve. Of your advice (laughing).
Do you know the term Smultronställe?
Yes. It is a place where you can be on your own and you feel good there. You just love everything about it. And it should be secret.
I am going to ask you to tell us about your smultronställe even though it should be secret.
Well, I have to change it now or everyone will go there. I have a smultronställe in Botkyrka kommun. There is this skiing resort called Flottsbro. And if you walk from Flottsbro, towards Tullinge, you will find some hills. Sweden is not known for hills, so it feels in a way like Switzerland. The nature is superb. There is nature everywhere here, but the nature there is even more special. I like just looking at the water there, being on my own.
Do you have a favorite Swedish word?
Not lagom*. Absolutely not.
You are not lagom.
No. The Swedish tend to use the word for discipline a lot; diciplin. I find it really nice, especially for me, coming from the Mediterranean with this free spirit mentality. But here it is all about commitment and discipline and having a certain pattern to follow.
Do you have a favorite Swedish food?
With all respect, I just hate the meatballs. They are not good (laughing). Swedish food is fine, but I just hate the practice of the typical food. I don’t know why but it is like in every holiday you have, you make the same food. It seems like the Swedish people were more bored than the person who drew the Japanese flag (laughing). They didn’t put any effort in it, they just said “let’s take this food and let’s do it every time!”.
That is 100% true. We have the same food for Christmas, Easter, Midsummer… But we have the crayfish party! That is a little different.
Yes a bit. Kräftskiva*. I love it. With the snaps. But you have to do it with a Swede to get the right feeling. This year actually I was out in the skärgård* because one of my friends has a house there on one of the islands. It was a really nice kräftskiva. It’s not about the food, it’s about the company.
It’s not like a proper holiday, it is just something we do in late August. You don’t have to get gifts for anyone and you can choose if you want to celebrate with your friends or with your family.
Do you have a favorite Swedish song that we can add to the Moving to Sweden Playlist?
Helt Seriöst with Khalifa.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Just good luck moving to Sweden! It’s a nice place to live, you just have to be open.
Breathe like a Swede?
Breathe like a Swede!
*Språkcafe means language café
*Lagom is an adjective that translates to “just right” or “not too much or too little” and is very often used to describe parts of the Swedish mentality and culture too.
*Kräftskiva means crayfish party
*Skärgård means archipelago
Make sure to listen to Hasan’s add to our playlist!