Syria refugees take fast-track to new life in Swe­den

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY TOM SUL­LI­VAN

Since open­ing its doors to Syr­i­ans flee­ing war, Swe­den has wel­comed record num­bers of refugees and a small but grow­ing group are tak­ing fast-tracks to jobs, buck­ing un­em­ploy­ment trends.

Rami Sab­bagh, an en­er­getic 31-year-old fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst, fled the Syr­ian cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus af­ter the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad put his name on a wanted list for help­ing refugees from the city’s bombed-out sub­urbs.

Just over two years later — clad in dark jeans and a leather jacket — he leads the way to a plush meet­ing room in Spo­tify’s sleek Stock­holm head­quar­ters.

The mu­sic stream­ing gi­ant hired him in March af­ter a four-month job place­ment.

“Four years ago I would never have imag­ined end­ing up in Swe­den,” he told AFP, re­call­ing how his life was changed by the civil war that erupted in his coun­try in 2011.

“My ca­reer was mov­ing for­ward, I’d been pro­moted at my bank, I had my own apart­ment, my own car and my fam­ily there. I had a life,” he added.

“But some things force you to move for­ward, just leave ev­ery­thing be­hind and try to start a new life.”

When he ar­rived in the south­ern Swe­den town of Malmo in De­cem­ber 2012, migration au­thor­i­ties placed him in a vil­lage 1,200 kilo­me­ters far­ther north where he waited for his res­i­dence per­mit, strug­gling with bore­dom and long­ing to get to the city.

Pa­pers in hand eight months later, he used fam­ily con­tacts to find a room in Stock­holm and spent a year study­ing Swedish, work­ing in odd jobs and ap­ply­ing for po­si­tions at English- speak­ing com­pa­nies be­fore start­ing Korta Va­gen (Short Cut), a fast-track state-funded pro­gram for uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates that led to Spo­tify.

More Qual­i­fied Refugees

In Septem­ber 2013, Swe­den threw its doors open to Syr­i­ans, grant­ing them near au­to­matic res­i­dency and boost­ing over­all asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions — the high­est per capita in the EU ac­cord­ing to Euro­stat — to record lev­els.

Since then, more than 40,000 Syr­i­ans have ar­rived — in­clud­ing 30,000 out of last year’s 80,000 refugees — amid grow­ing con­cerns over hous­ing short­ages and length­en­ing lines at em­ploy­ment of­fices.

Job­less rates among nonSwedish born res­i­dents are about dou­ble the na­tional av­er­age of 7.8 per­cent and triple for refugees from Africa and the Mid­dle East — fu­el­ing sup­port for the anti- im­mi­gra­tion far- right in a coun­try which has long en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion as Europe’s most lib­eral when it comes to wel­com­ing asy­lum seek­ers.

The ma­jor­ity of new­com­ers lack higher ed­u­ca­tion and strug­gle to find work, hit with the dou­ble bar­rier of the Swedish lan­guage and a short­age of low- skilled jobs econ­omy.

All of that has of­ten made it dif­fi­cult for im­mi­grants to in­te­grate.

But that pic­ture looks set to change, as Syr­ian refugees come with much higher qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

“Ever since the Syr­ian sit­u­a­tion started we’ve seen the ed­u­ca­tion level of peo­ple in in­tro­duc­tion ( pro­grams) con­tin­u­ally ris­ing,” said Jo­han Nylander, head of refugee in­te­gra­tion at the Swedish Public Em­ploy­ment Ser­vice.

A quar­ter of refugees in 2014 had higher ed­u­ca­tion — up al­most 5 per­cent on the pre­vi­ous year. More than two- thirds of them had skills which matched grad­u­ate job va­can­cies.

“It’s easy to get stuck on prob­lems and chal­lenges, but it’s also a great pos­si­bil­ity for Swe­den,” said Nylander, adding that the coun­try was de­pen­dent on for­eign la­bor to meet la­bor short­ages in its aging pop­u­la­tion.

A 2010 gov­ern­ment re­form put his agency in charge of in­te­grat­ing new refugees — pre­vi­ously han­dled by lo­cal coun­cils. One ma­jor change was that new­com­ers now start job pro-

in a high- tech grams in par­al­lel with state­funded Swedish classes, in­stead of wait­ing years to mas­ter the lan­guage first.

Hous­ing Short­ages

But re­gard­less of skills, hous­ing short­ages are a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for all new­com­ers.

More than 10,000 peo­ple re­main stuck in refugee cen­ters months af­ter get­ting res­i­dency; thou­sands more stay with rel­a­tives and friends in cramped con­di­tions.

“We have ris­ing num­bers wait­ing to find a place to live and dur­ing that time the in­te­gra­tion process halts ... Ev­ery­thing in­di­cates that long wait­ing pe­ri­ods only af­fect your fu­ture em­ploy­ment prospects in a bad way,” said Nylander.

Ge­orge Zedan, a 45-year-old phar­ma­cist from Hama in cen­tral Syria — a prov­ince which saw bru­tal ex­e­cu­tions by Is­lamic State forces in late March — stays with friends in Up­p­lands Vasby, a Stock­holm sub­urb, along with his wife and three small chil­dren.

In Fe­bru­ary he paid peo­ple smug­glers US$ 25,000 ( 23,000 eu­ros) for a hair- rais­ing boat trip from Turkey to Greece and a flight to Swe­den.

Now he works as an ap­pren­tice at a lo­cal phar­macy on a gov­ern­ment-funded pro­gram while he waits for his qual­i­fi­ca­tions to be rec­og­nized.

“I ran my own phar­macy for 10 years but be­fore we left I couldn’t work at all. Ter­ror­ists sur­rounded our vil­lage, there were bombs in the street and when we went to town for sup­plies we never knew what would hap­pen,” he said.

“I’m very happy to re­turn to what I know ... to re­fresh my knowl­edge,” he added with a tired smile, run­ning a hand over his thin­ning fair hair.

Swe­den’s phar­ma­cists’ union has com­plained to the gov­ern­ment about long de­lays in cer­ti­fy­ing an es­ti­mated 200 to 400 Syr­ian phar­ma­cists, des­per­ately needed to re­place the one in four cur­rently close to re­tire­ment.

“There is work here, I know I can work and make a good life,” said Zedan, as his ex­pres­sion grad­u­ally dark­ened.

“Ev­ery­thing would be OK now if we could just find ac­com­mo­da­tion. We need sta­bil­ity, to be able to fo­cus on work and learn­ing Swedish.”

AFP

Ge­orge Zedan, a 45-year-old phar­ma­cist and refugee from Syria, works at Kro­nans Apotek phar­macy in Up­p­lands Vaesby, north of Stock­holm, on May 25.

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