How skilled refugees are landing tech jobs in Stockholm
Publish date: 18 December 2015
Four years ago, Rami Sabbagh was facing an uncertain future in war-ravaged Syria. Today, he’s working for Spotify, one of Stockholm’s hottest tech companies. Like many other refugees from Syria and elsewhere, Rami didn’t know how his journey would end, but he knew where he hoped he’d end up.
“Sweden was one of the first countries to start granting asylum to Syrians citizens,” he says. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that Sweden gave me.”
Even after arriving in Sweden, it took a nearly two years before Rami ended up at perhaps the most famous of Stockholm tech ‘unicorns’. Key was starting in “Korta Vägen” (‘Short Cut’), a state-run programme designed to help foreign graduates enter the Swedish job market faster.
“When you don’t have experience in Sweden, employers prefer to hire someone who has actually worked here. That’s why I choose to start with an internship,” he explains. But the internship quickly led to a full-time job at Spotify, a company growing at a “rapid pace” according to Rami.
“Joining Spotify, a great example of a successful Stockholm startup, is really challenging. If you are not passionate about your work in this kind of environment, you won’t enjoy it,” he says.
But Rami loves his job and living in the thriving Stockholm tech scene.
“Stockholm is a major tech city with a huge number of startups, so the competition is really intense. You get to learn a lot on the way to the success,” he adds.
Tayeb Al Muhammad, another refugee from Syria, also learned a lot on his journey to Stockholm after finishing university in Damascus in 2013.
“My last semester was really tough. My university was near the front lines and it was really hard to focus,” he recalls. “I was also facing the possibility of military service so I started looking for alternatives. I knew I had to leave.”
Tayeb eventually applied for asylum in Sweden, eventually ending up in Stockholm looking for his next opportunity.
“A friend of my uncle ran an air conditioning firm in Bromma, and I was able to get some part-time secretarial and accounting work there,” he explains.
While not exactly a dream job, it was a start – and an important one.
“Having a part-time job was critical. It relieved my financial stress and helped me avoid sitting in a refugee camp with nothing to do,” he says.
Before long, he also entered “Korta Vägen”, through which he was put in touch with Incluso, a firm that matches foreign graduates with Swedish employers. In no time Incluso had matched Tayeb with an internship with Philip Morris in Stockholm.
“They were looking for someone with Excel skills. And after three months as an intern, I was hired into their trainee programme,” Tayeb says.
And things are going well, as Tayeb recently received Philip Morris’s “above and beyond” reward in recognition for a new database tool he created to aid the sales team.
Tayeb considers himself lucky, admitting that his transition to life in Stockholm was easier than he expected, thanks in part to his family connection and the fact that he found a job where English proficiency was sufficient.
He adds that having the right attitude is also important to succeeding in the Swedish capital.
“You have to avoid the negative vibes and never give up. You have to be stubborn – not simply motivated – but stubborn,” he says.
While internships are one path to full-time employment, IT entrepreneur Hamed Khoramyar, a refugee from Iran who has lived in the Swedish capital since 2010, had a different plan.
Rather than look for work with an established Stockholm tech firm, Hamed started his own IT services firm, something he said was “much easier” to do in Stockholm compared to Tehran.
“The best part is access to a great infrastructure and vast opportunities of a connected society. The ease of doing business, finding talent, and unique systems like the personnummer and mobile-bank ID are already in place,” he says.
“The fact that almost everybody in Stockholm speaks English also was an important factor, as I could start immediately without worrying about a language barrier.”
Despite his own success as a tech entrepreneur, Hamed admits his path may not be for everyone.
“Entrepreneurship is generally very difficult: 75 percent of startups fail in the first ten years, and Sweden is a developed and a very competitive market, even for Swedish entrepreneurs. But of course nothing is impossible,” he says, adding that immigrants should expect to have to “prove themselves” in the search for a job.
“It’s not easy to say the least. We have to have a realistic plan, and get ourselves to the level society expects from other citizens,” he explains. Coming from another country as an adult and trying to catch up is hard. But it has to be done if we want to be successful.”