From Syria to Turkey on foot, across the Mediterranean and the Aegean to Greece on a raft, on the back of a truck all the way from Hungary to Vienna, and somehow ending up on a train to Malmö... You’ve heard it before, at least that’s what you think. But this story isn’t meant to be a magnet for your empathy - and definitely not your pity either.
The year is 2007. You’re studying your third year of bachelor’s, trying to find your passion. You take a course in Embedded Systems and it suddenly strikes you - this is it, this is your passion. This is the future. KTH has the perfect program for you! And suddenly, you see it all: your masters’ thesis, your first job, all the things you’re going to revolutionize about the tech world.
This is how your academic journey begins… Except that you’re not Karl from Gävle, you’re Ahmad from Aleppo. But you’re just another student, in just another university, with the same ambition, some anxiety, some free-time... The usual, really. Nothing special.
I met Ahmad during my first month in Sweden, right after he finished giving a speech during KTH’s ceremony for scholarship recipients. Guilty as you may feel in these situations, I was also moved by empathy. I felt intrigued, touched, compassionate… inspired, maybe; a little bit sorry. All of the beautiful adjectives we use to mask pity. Despite my home country neighboring his, and my mother tongue matching his; not once did I think: relatable. 19 months later, I called Ahmad for an interview. I wanted to rid myself, before any of you, from the so-called empathy that strips us from our ability to see other people as ‘similar’.
Ahmad Zaklouta, KTH Alumni and FPGA consultant, is an example of someone who dug his way into the classroom. Like many of us, he had set his mind to pursue his masters degree at KTH midway through his bachelor’s, right after taking a course on embedded systems. For him, however, things were a little bit more complicated.
While your average Karl from Gävle can express a political opinion the same way they complain about the weather; the average Ahmad from Aleppo cannot. An anti-government opinion that 21-year old Ahmad spurted out on campus cost him 4 years of his life. Vocal students at the time were mass-imprisoned; which led to him being behind bars during the elections’ period in Syria. Unfortunately for him, the date of his release from jail coincided with the start of the war. Being a political prisoner stripped Ahmad of all his civil rights, including access to his personal identification documents - but it did not strip him of his dream to make it to KTH.
And so he fled, clueless and undocumented, to Turkey; where he would spend a couple of years attempting to work and save up, researching routes and planning his life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean. With nothing to lose and just over €4,000 in savings, he hopped on a raft with 5 dozen people heading to Greece in August of 2015.
On foot through Turkey, on a raft to Greece, by bus through Macedonia, across the border to Serbia, smuggled on a truck from Hungary to Vienna, up on a train through Germany - Ahmad saw only one light at the end of the tunnel: to get to KTH in one piece.
After a journey of 28 days across 8 borders, Ahmad finally arrived in Malmö and turned himself into Migrationsverket (Swedish Migration Agency). Afterwards, he was allocated to a shelter in Flen, a town southeast of Stockholm, where he awaited his acceptance letter from KTH.
Ahmad’s story is not meant to inspire you in any way, it’s not meant to trigger you either. It’s not meant to normalize smuggling, it’s not meant to normalize war. It’s meant to neither idolize nor dehumanize refugees; it’s just meant to show you that they are not a different species.
Ahmad is not any different from the millions of refugees spread out across the world; quoting his own words, many are probably much smarter than him and possess much more potential. We live in a time where many companies, universities, and even governments are pushing for diversity, inclusion and intercultural exchanges are valued and celebrated; yet we still manage to exclude those who need to be included the most.
Upon being granted refugee status in Sweden, refugees are often introduced to a 2-year integration program. Which is not necessarily bad; it’s just not designed to empower. It provides you with the bare minimum of language and survival skills to make it through. Sounds fair, right? Sure.
Now put yourself in those shoes. You graduated as an engineer after studying for five years, you may even have a year or two of experience. Then suddenly, you’re expected to stagnate for two years. You’re expected to learn a few phrases in a foreign language - just enough to help you settle for a vocational job. And that’s where you stay - there’s no moving up.
The alternative to that is that, like Ahmad, you’re given the chance to enroll in a university, pursue - or continue pursuing - an education. Integrate in the meantime. Get to know the society around you, maybe even the language. Accustom yourself to the culture, to the traditions. Make friends, build your confidence. Build a solid ground for a career, a ground solid enough that you don’t feel forced into stagnation or reliance… a ground solid enough that you yourself become a contributor to society, you give more than you take.
What makes the story of Ahmad different has less to do with his luck, ambition, or perseverance; and much more to do with systematic support and opportunity. What helped Ahmad get to where he is today is not that he is immune to trauma; it’s that he received the support that he needed. The humanitarian scholarship that he received from “KTH Alumni” allowed him to move on with his education justly, and receive the support and the equipment he needed to match his colleagues. By receiving that kind of support, Ahmad was also able to integrate within Swedish student life sustainably - he made a lot of friends, tried out winter sports, got into skiing, and even found a job through THS Armada.
In every refugee camp, shelter, or integration program there is at least one young person who can be of great contribution to society; and it’s up to the systems we create whether they end up next to us in a classroom or on the streets.