For one Syrian refugee, close, but no asylum

Commentary: For Road Trip 2016, I met asylum seekers in Sweden and Finland on the doorstep of a dream. But for some, the door is closed.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
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Laura Hautala
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This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

The email was a shock.

"Unfortunately, my application for residence permit has been rejected," wrote Safinaz Awad, a Syrian computer programmer who until that moment in early August represented a success story for asylum seekers in Sweden.


Jonathan Persson of Stockholm startup Bigspin stands with employee Safinaz Awad. Sweden has deferred Awad's asylum application to Greece.

Laura Hautala/CNET

After traveling from Syria to Greece to Stockholm last year, Awad, who is in her early 30s, landed a full-time job at a Stockholm-based tech startup in May. Her husband stays home and cares for their 1-year-old son.

It was a dream come true. But now her dream of receiving asylum so she and her family can settle permanently in Sweden seems unattainable.

"I'm trying to find a solution," she told me. But that solution might be for Awad to return to Greece, where she first registered as a refugee, and apply for a work permit in Sweden. That's just so she can return and keep working the same job, writing code for a web application developer called Bigspin.

I traveled to Sweden and Finland in late June to find out if technology was helping refugees adjust to life in new cultures. Both countries received unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers in 2015 and they're scrambling to process all the asylum applications -- 163,000 in Sweden and 32,000 in Finland.

What I learned is that tech companies are trying to help find work for asylum seekers, especially skilled workers like Awad. I also found that both countries are having a new conversation, amplified by social media, in which citizens question whether they can or should take in so many new refugees.

Meeting with asylum seekers themselves affected me the most. I got to know five people, including Awad, who are fully committed to building new lives in Sweden and Finland in whatever way they can. Mustafa Salam Abdulameer, a tall and lanky 22-year-old Iraqi refugee living outside of Helsinki, has a five-year plan that leaves me exhausted just thinking about it.


Mustafa Abdulameer, 22, received asylum in early June.

Laura Hautala/CNET

"I want to learn Finnish in 8 months," he says. It should be noted that Finnish is one of the world's most difficult languages to learn. He also wants to complete his college degree and work in an internship.

After that? "I want to start my own company."

If you want to feel like an undisciplined schlub, sit down with Abdulameer during Ramadan. When we met, he bought me a rooibos tea several hours before sundown and kept his Ramadan fast while we talked. In Finland, there are only three hours of semitwilight at night in which a Ramadan observer can eat, drink and, most important to Abdulameer, smoke.

To keep his mind off how badly he wanted a cigarette, he told me for over an hour about the long and arduous trek he made in bad shoes over eight international borders to reach Finland.

Tech brought Abdulameer to Finland. More specifically, it was Google. A pharmacy owner in Iraq, Abdulameer said he was threatened by militias in Baghdad and decided to leave. He met some Finnish tourists while visiting Turkey, and turned to Google to learn more about the country. He liked what he saw -- it was a country where he could hope to start a business again.

He wasn't alone in choosing Finland. The vast majority of asylum seekers who came to the country in 2015 were from Iraq.

His mother didn't want him to leave. But "when you realize you will be killed, you must leave," he said. His mother still lives in Baghdad, and Abdulameer wants to bring her and his sisters to Finland.


The reporter, Laura Hautala, in Uppsala, Sweden.

Laura Hautala/CNET

It's not surprising the refugees I met were so industrious. I met them through the tech companies and entrepreneurs trying to help them get jobs. They were exemplary refugees, making progress in all the different employment programs I was learning about.

That's why it was jarring to hear that Awad, the Syrian programmer, was now being told to retrace her steps to Greece. Wasn't she already a model Swede -- a skilled worker who pays taxes?

But job status has no bearing on asylum decisions. And that makes sense, because asylum is granted based on how dangerous your home country is, not how skilled a worker you are. It wouldn't be right to send people back to mortal danger based on their income.

It's also based on where you first register as a refugee. In emails with the Swedish migration service, I found people in Awad's situation don't have an alternative. This is because of the Dublin Regulation.

"The Dublin regulation determines what country is responsible to process the asylum application," Guna Graufelds, a representative of the Swedish migration agency, wrote in response to my questions, "[I]f Sweden, in communication with another member state comes to the conclusion that another state is responsible to process the application, the person in question must go to that country."

Still, Abdulameer wasn't faced with this problem. He said he made contact with immigration authorities in Greece, but that didn't affect the outcome of his application. He was granted asylum in Finland in early June, so he'll have a shot at making his five-year plan a reality.

There has been talk of overhauling this rule in the European Union, but for now it remains.

Awad said she and her husband couldn't walk across Europe with their infant son, and found they couldn't sneak onto a plane or a boat either. That's why they registered in Greece -- so they could get a travel document and fly to Sweden legally. They knew it might jeopardize their chances of getting asylum in Sweden, but they wanted to reunite with Awad's mother and sister, who were already in the Scandinavian country.

Graufelds said it's very rare for asylum seekers to work. I knew this -- that's why tech companies are trying to help some get jobs.

But in the case of an asylum worker who does have a job?

"It is possible for a former asylum seeker to apply for a job permit," Graufelds said. "But this cannot be done from Sweden, but from another country."

I want to bang my head against a wall at what seems like a cruel bureaucracy, one that would send someone back into chaos when she was so close to getting a normal life. I can only imagine how Awad must feel. For now she's consulting with a lawyer to decide what to do next.