The political science student from Syria who talks about not giving up, how to create a social life, and learning Swedish in an action based way
When did you decide to move to Sweden?
I am from Syria, and as most people know, the civil war there started in 2012. I moved to Sweden in September 2015, when there was a wave of immigration to Europe. I think it was the 19th of September when I came to Malmö Central Station. The first thing that happened was a blonde Swedish girl giving me a jacket, because I was freezing. I booked the flight and decided everything in just one month. It was kind of in a rush, a lot of people were fleeing and leaving the country. Before that I considered the whole thing a lot. I realized there was no future for me in Syria. A lot of friends had immigrated to Europe, and that was when I decided to come to Sweden. So, almost five years ago! In nine days, I will apply for the Swedish citizenship.
Wow! That is exciting! So, you came here five years ago. You decided that you had to leave your country, but the top priority was maybe not that is was specifically Sweden?
I came here with a friend of mine. We decided to come to Sweden from the beginning before we left. A lot of people were not sure where to go, but Sweden was the goal for us for many reasons.
Was there something specific that you can remember that made you decide on Sweden?
We compared different countries, and also, I had my uncle in Sweden. But there was a lot of reasons, one of them was the citizenship. That is something really important for the future, especially if you want to study. I can’t go anywhere with my Syrian passport. Also, Swedish people are very welcoming and open-minded.
How would you say your experience of moving here was compared to what you expected?
I was 19, so I didn’t really know that much about Sweden and the differences compared to other countries. I decided not to expect too much so I would not be disappointed. And like I said, the whole thing happened in just one month.
You didn’t have a lot of expectations because of how fast the process was, your age and the fact that you had decided not to expect too much.
I let myself experience everything without any expectations, because I didn’t want to judge.
You wanted to come with an open mind.
Yes. I knew a few things about the Swedish system and the society, but that was just a bunch of facts in my mind, I didn’t go any deeper than that.
You have described that you didn’t have a lot of expectations, but if you look back, was there something you wish you would have known before you came here to prepare?
When I came to Sweden, it took me almost one year to get my residence permit. That was something that I didn’t know about and it was a big disappointment to me.
You thought it would go faster?
Yeah, the whole process, that is something I wish I would have known before. I came here with a lot of energy. Keeping you in a refugee camp…for one year you are not allowed to work* or go to school. You just have to wait. If you know how long you need to wait, it is OK, but you have no clue how long it is going to take.
And this is if you are an asylum seeker?
Yes, but I think this is something most people have a problem with, even if you are not an asylum seeker. The whole process of immigration takes a lot of energy from you, a lot of time. I think that is something you would rather know, than just wait.
If you would have known that, you would have been better prepared for that period.
But, would it have been off-putting? If you would have known, do you think you would have picked a different country?
I don’t think so, because I didn’t have time to think and re-think and have second thoughts.
If you would have known about the time it would probably take, then maybe you would have also been able to use that time…
….mentally prepare, study Swedish on your own…Usually, if you have a goal or a date, then you know that “If I just wait until this date, then I am going to get an answer, I am going to know something”. So that is something you would have like to have known.
Yes, instead of just being in this situation and you do not know what is happening and you are surrounded by people in the same situation, and they don’t know what to do, and you get confused and you hear things that confuse you. A lot of rumours, and you don’t really know what is going on. You start to create your own expectations, you hear someone saying they waited for two months and another one saying they waited a year…
How did you deal with that?
I would say I lost a lot of energy. Everything changed. From the food, to routine, to the weather. That was a big shock to me, and that I had no idea what was going to happen. Economically, I was in a bad situation as well. But, despite everything…in the first two or three months I couldn’t do that much, but I remember going online and starting to learn some Swedish phrases. Me and my friend would sit in our room and practice Swedish conversation: “Vad heter du? Jag heter Saeed”*. And then going out and trying to speak Swedish to Swedish people and realizing that they are very impressed. And that is encouraging. They ask you how long you have been in Sweden in Swedish and you are able to answer in Swedish. You get the feeling that you are developing something!
You created your own little language course?
Yes, with my friend! And when we realized that we are getting really good response from the people we spoke to, that encouraged us, despite everything. We continued that way, and I bought a book with the little money I had. And I started to study, learn new things, go out, get the impressions and get the power, and then go again.
You mention the word “power”. Was learning the language connected to a feeling of regaining some power in your life?
Yes, that gave me a really, really good energy. I thought I would just be able to say a few words, and the other person would get tired of you or switch to English. But the thing is, they were like “What a beautiful Swedish you speak! You have been here such a short time and can speak that much? That’s impressive!”.
It is impressive!
This encouragement makes you want to continue, no matter how hard your situation is, or how hard the language is.
Learning some language, but also getting to interact with people. That gave you energy and a sense of power.
On the topic of learning Swedish, is there a word or a phrase in Swedish that is essential to know according to you?
I don’t think you can translate it to English, but it is a word that I find very important. You will be living with it, you will need it, not the word but what it means. The word is Gemenskap*. It is hard to find an equal word in English, but it is the feeling that if you are in it, then you are part of the community, you are integrated. The word makes you reflect on how important it is. That was a very important word for me.
I agree that it is hard to translate directly, but community, or a sense of community is probably the best way to translate it. Gemenskap, this feeling of supporting each other, helping out and allowing everyone to be included in something. You are talking about this word as essential for living here. How do you find that balance between being in the gemenskap or outside of it? Is it easy to handle?
I think it is a phase. For me, and I think for most people, especially in Sweden, there is a time when you might feel outside of the gemenskap. And it is a hard thing to get in. It will be a phase here in Sweden, as a newcomer, where you will feel that you are outside. Everything that you are doing, everything you are working for, will be a way to get into the gemenskap, that you need.
Do you have any advise on how to get into the gemenskap or how to create your feeling of belonging?
I am studying my bachelor’s degree in political science now at Swedish university, in Swedish. In the first two or three years for me, I didn’t have many Swedish friends. But now, I have Swedish friends that I feel are real friends. I went with my kompis*, a Swedish guy, to Spain. I never thought I would get to that level, that I consider him just like a friend in my home country. And in that sense, the language is essential.
You speak Swedish to each other?
Yeah. Another thing, adding on to the language, is that you have to know about Sweden, you have to watch Swedish things… it’s not enough to just know the language. If you spend time with Swedish people, even if you speak the language, they will be talking about things that you have no idea about. Which is hard, but also normal. That requires more effort from you. Watching Swedish TV, read more about Sweden…and I would say you have to be very open-minded. Even if you feel like you are reaching out but not getting anything back, you have to continue. Don’t stop, you just have to keep reaching out. Especially without the Swedish, it is really hard. Anywhere, not just in Sweden! You might get the impression that Swedes are kind of closed and don’t want to reach out to you. I used to think that, but I don’t anymore. It is on you. You need to understand how to get in there and how to become a friend and understand them .
You have put down a lot of effort into understanding the culture. Not just the language, but also the culture surrounding the language. And by understanding the culture, it might also be easier to see that a Swedish person might not be cold or an introvert, it might just be their culture.
Yes, understanding is a top priority. And then adapting. I wouldn’t say it is the same for everybody because we all have different circumstances, and maybe because of the university this was easier for me. Although, my closest friend, we were not in the same class at university. We are just very similar. But without Swedish and knowing a lot about the culture, that wouldn’t have been possible, I think.
We were talking about finding this gemenskap, this community. Even if your friend wasn’t studying the same thing at university as you were, just taking any course at university can open the door to a new context. They will have student parties, student organisations…and I’m guessing that is an easier place to meet people with similar interests and values.
Exactly. We have different circumstances, and the circumstances are really important. But sometimes you have to create them.
You’re a student here, but have you also worked in Sweden?
Would you like to say something about the Swedish work culture?
In the beginning, I worked at a transportation company. I didn’t speak Swedish, so I was just carrying stuff. Then, I worked in a second hand shop, in a Malmö nursing home and then also a nursing home in Lund.
You have been busy!
Yeah. I work during the summers and part-time when I am studying.
It sounds like you have been open to different types of jobs the whole time?
Yeah. I learned, I developed. I would say the Swedish working culture and work environment is very different from my home country, from what I have experienced. Firstly, there is no obvious hierarchy.
It’s a little flat?
Yes. Another thing that is quite unique is that your boss won’t be direct with you and tell you exactly what to do in a strict way. They will tell you in a nice way, that makes you not understand how important or big it is.
They are implying things rather than saying it straight out?
Yeah. With your colleagues, it is always important to put the effort into talking to them. Try to talk even if the other person is on their phone or eating or something. Usually it is on you to take the first, the second, and sometimes the thirds step. Just go for it, continue, nothing bad will happen!
I am so impressed with the number of jobs you have had here. A lot of people describe how hard it is to find work in Sweden and how much time and effort it takes. Do you have any advice on finding work for new people in Sweden?
I would say that it is very hard to find the contract that you want, and there might be things on your way that you have to do. You have to be very qualified. I would say: keep in mind that no matter what you face on your way, once you get there, things will be so comfortable for you. You will have a safe and sheltered life. You will get five weeks of paid vacation. When you get there things will get so much better for you. That is something to keep in mind. No matter how hard it is, when I get there, my life will change.
You are describing working your way up. Getting experience so you can get closer to your dream job, and once you are there, it will all be worth it.
Do you think it is important to construct a goal like this? And then backtrack the steps you need to take to get there?
Yeah. It will take time, it is going to take a lot of energy from you. But in the end, this goal is going to be worth it for you, you kids, your future, everything, no matter how hard it is.
Your advice would be to: take those steps, don’t give up, it is going to be worth it in the end.
What had been the most difficult thing for you in Sweden?
I would say, making friends. I am a very social person. Talkative and I love having people around me. I grew up in Damascus, a capital city with five million people, a lot of friends…here, you sometimes feel lonely. That was the hardest thing, I would say. A lot of things would contribute to that. The weather takes a long time to adapt to. But now, I have a lot of friends. Most of them are Swedish.
Was the key to that social life starting at university?
No. The key was the language, and you pick up some skills, some ways to start a conversation.
Yes, social skills that will help you. And then, the circumstances and your environment.
Can you give us an example of a social skill that will help you in Sweden?
I would say it is always you that has to take the initiative to start a conversation. Don’t wait, nobody will come to you! Sometimes it will work, sometimes it wont. Sometimes it will work, but not grow, sometimes it will grow. But you have to start.
Be brave, do it!
What is you favourite thing about Sweden?
I would say equality. The whole thing about thinking about the environment and considering the climate change. It makes you feel safe and appreciate the country. It makes you appreciate the mentality and learn a lot.
We have a playlist where we add Swedish music every week. Do you have a favourite Swedish song to add to the playlist?
Songs in Swedish and with Swedish ordspråk, Swedish sayings, really helped me when I was learning Swedish. When you are new in a country and you put a Swedish saying in a conversation, it will surprise people or make them laugh and they will tell you another saying, especially old people, I noticed when I used to work with them.
It opens up a conversation.
Exactly. After living here for five years, my thoughts always go to my home country and the tragedy there. To hear a song that brings me back there…because we have completely different lives here. Economically, everything. The song I am thinking about is “Somliga går med trasiga skor” with Cornelis Vreeswjik. He was actually also an immigrant, from the Netherlands. But the songs that he made, he is an expert in Swedish! That is something that also gives inspiration.
We will add Somliga går med trasiga skor, which translates to Some people walk around in torn shoes. That was our last question, would you like to add something?
Sweden is a lovely country, I am in love with Sweden. Compared to where I am from, there are a lot of things missing, socially. But on the other side, Sweden has a lot of other things that will make you feel like you made the right decision moving here. That is probably the case for every country.
Try to find the things that you like.
Thank you so much for doing the interview with us!
*“Vad heter du? Jag heter Saeed” translates to “What is your name? My name is Saeed”
*”Gemenskap” is a noun that translates to “community”. However, it is usually more a feeling of community than an actual defined group.
*”Kompis” translates to “friend”
Make sure to listen to Tareq’s add to our playlist!