In Sweden and Finland, tech companies help refugees find work

Both Nordic nations are stretched thin processing thousands of new asylum seekers. The tech industry is lending a much-needed hand.

Laura Hautala/CNET

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

Safinaz Awad went through hell to get to Sweden.

Last year, she -- along with her mother, sister, husband and infant son -- escaped Syria and the civil war there that's so far killed nearly half a million men, women and children. The five crammed into an overcrowded smuggler's boat for the treacherous crossing between Turkey and Greece across the Aegean Sea. Two days after reaching Greece, her mother and sister snuck onto a plane to Sweden, where they could live permanently if granted asylum.

Awad and her husband, though, feared their baby would draw too much attention from the authorities. But to leave legally, they'd need official travel documents -- and the only way to get those was by registering for asylum in Greece. That's not something many refugees and migrants want to do because a European law called the Dublin Regulation can force asylum seekers to live in the first EU nation they set foot in.

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Jonathan Persson of Stockholm startup Bigspin stands with employee Safinaz Awad, an asylum seeker who worked for seven years as a programmer in Damascus, Syria.

Laura Hautala

So Awad, 30, and her family spent the next six months trying to sneak across the Greek border using fake IDs and passports. Desperate, she tried to board a ferry to Italy with her son. She was stopped and sent to jail for a night, along with her baby.

"It was terrible," she says matter of factly. So they applied for asylum in Greece in order to get a travel document allowing them to legally head to Sweden. They knew they could potentially be sent back to Greece now that they had registered there, but it was a risk worth taking to get to Sweden.

Then her luck changed -- at least temporarily.

An experienced programmer skilled in languages like C++ and JavaScript, Awad landed a job with Bigspin, a small web app developer just a few months after reaching Sweden. "It was easy," she tells me. "I didn't think I would get a job in this fast way."

That might not seem surprising since programming skills are in demand pretty much everywhere. What's unexpected is the oversized role the tech industry in Sweden is playing in helping her and others like her find work -- and not just in tech. Local startups, consultants and global companies are cataloging migrants' skills and education, training them, setting up internships and placing refugees in jobs. They've also connected asylum seekers with investors looking to back new businesses, from restaurants and barber shops to web-based marketing companies.

I found the same thing in Finland.

For two weeks in June, I traveled across Sweden and Finland to see firsthand how these two tech-rich nations are coping with the biggest influx of refugees either has experienced in years. Both countries offer extraordinary social services fueled by some of the highest personal income taxes in the world.

And both benefit from a tech sector eager to help newcomers contribute their fair share.

"We don't have a way here to start to find a job," says Awad, her hand cutting through the air on an invisible pathway. "They found a way for us."

Tax burden

Last year, more than 1.1 million people fled to Europe from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 163,000 refugees applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, compared with 80,000 applicants in 2014. (In Europe, only Germany -- with nearly 10 times Sweden's population -- received more requests, according the United Nations.) Tiny Finland, with just 5.5 million people, reported 32,000 asylum seekers in 2015 versus 3,651 applicants the year before.

No matter how you slice the numbers, these migrants are a burden on countries offering comprehensive welfare services ranging from guaranteed housing to universal health care. Sweden's benefits include 480 days of paid parental leave, free education through college and child support. Finland provides 500 days of unemployment insurance, cheap health care -- and even a state-supplied gift of baby clothes, bedding and baby care products to all expectant parents.

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Around 200 people gathered to demonstrate for human rights and rights for refugees in Malmo, Sweden, in February, demanding that European authorities and governments take action to open the safe passage routes for asylum seekers.

Pacific Press, LightRocket via Getty Images

All services depend on taxes paid by residents with steady jobs. Finns pay 51.6 percent of their income to the tax man; Swedes pay 57 percent -- the world's fourth highest personal rate. (By comparison, the US tops out at 39.6 percent.) So it's to everyone's benefit when asylum seekers find work quickly.

"They will not depend on social services," M. "Dish" Eldishnawy, founder of Finnish big data company Floralytics, told me. "They'll be perceived as a valuable resource."

Tech teams

Earlier this summer, Eldishnawy co-moderated Newcomer Bootcamp -- a one-day course for refugees from Syria, Iraq and Somalia on setting up and running businesses in Finland and Western Europe. The course, held in Helsinki, was just one of a series of conferences, workshops and hackathons organized by Techfugees, a nonprofit social enterprise that describes itself as "a tech community response to the needs of refugees."

About 250 miles away in Stockholm, Johan Engstrom saw a business opportunity from the surge of refugees entering Sweden last year. So he founded Sync Accelerator, a private recruitment agency matching technically proficient refugees with Swedish companies that need their skills. It's how Bigspin and Awad found each other.

"They had many skilled IT professionals from many different countries, newcomers to Sweden looking for a job," Bigspin founder Jonathan Persson remembers after talking with Engstrom. "I thought it was a good opportunity because the competences are highly sought by all companies."

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Johan Engstrom, founder of Sync Accelerator, a Stockholm-based recruiting agency that has so far placed three technically skilled asylum seekers in jobs.

Laura Hautala

Think of Sync Accelerator as a sort of Swedish LinkedIn that's focused exclusively on "integrating highly educated newly arrived refugees into the Swedish labour market and Swedish business life," according to its website. The agency gets a commission for every person it helps land a job.

As of August, that was three people.

Businesses tend to first think they should "intern for free," Engstrom tells me over coffee in the small, sunny room at Sync Accelerator's offices in Stockholm's Vasastaden district. "Companies have a hard time [recognizing] the value of their competency."

#WelcomeTalent

Lisa Gunnarsson works for the real LinkedIn in Stockholm. We meet at the company's offices and I ask what the world's largest network of job openings and employment skills is doing to ease the refugee crisis in the Nordic countries.

She tells me about a special microsite for asylum seekers and how a photo that went viral one weekend in September inspired it. That photo showed 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey, drowned after the boat carrying his family to Greece capsized.

The following Monday, "no one had the power to discuss anything normal. We were devastated," Gunnarsson says, sitting on a cerulean blue couch in a large meeting room filled with leather-bound books. "We were thinking what can we do to be part of a solution to this."

So LinkedIn created welcometalent.se, where refugees can search for jobs using the hashtag #welcometalent and other search terms that describe their skills and backgrounds.

"For the refugees, it helps expose your experience, your skills to the job market," says Gunnarsson. The site also lets companies post internship and job opportunities for free. Such jobs can vary widely but typically don't require perfect Swedish or a local reference.

Gunnarson pulls up welcometalent.se and looks at the screen. "This [job posting] from Ericsson just popped up," she says, pointing to an opening at the networking and telecoms giant.

LinkedIn is helping in other ways, too. The company partnered with Academicum, which helps university students, professors and researchers from other countries find jobs in Sweden. Academicum provides free access to Welcome Talent, LinkedIn and Lynda, LinkedIn's online education service.

LinkedIn staff spends a day with the asylum seekers in this program, teaching them how to set up a LinkedIn profile to showcase their experience and talents. About half already had profiles. Many haven't had the time to update their locations since fleeing their homeland. Awad's profile, for example, still says she works for Syrian Educational Publishers. So far, LinkedIn has trained about 200 people.

Interim steps

The Finnish government admits it has a challenge finding full-time jobs for all of its asylum seekers.

"If we succeed to have 3,000 of them employed, we will have done well," says Paivi Nerg, permanent secretary of the Ministry of the Interior. We meet inside an ornate stone government building in Helsinki. Nerg predicts that, at best, only one out of three refugees who came to Finland last year will be granted asylum.

Thousands of those refugees are staying in one of the 66 reception centers run by the Finnish Red Cross. I travel to one in Evitskog, 25 miles outside of Helsinki, to meet asylum seekers at the very beginning of their efforts to find a job.

The refugees are helped along by tech consultancy Accenture. Together with the Red Cross, Accenture assesses expertise and education (looking for IT skills in the process), and teaches migrants about the Finnish workplace. The goal is to place newcomers in short-term unpaid internships in businesses like grocery stores and homes for the elderly.

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Helsinki, the Finnish capital. Finland saw more than 32,000 asylum seekers arrive in 2015. Most came from Iraq.

Laura Hautala

It's here I meet Wudneh Kasahun. Sitting bolt upright, he describes in slow, careful sentences his work with the Ethiopian Red Cross. He says he fled his country because the government -- which for years has arbitrarily arrested staff from nonprofit organizations -- began to harass him.

Earlier this year, Kasahun, 29, worked for three weeks without pay at a local grocery store. The experience gave him a Finnish job reference, a stepping stone to finding full-time work. He wants to earn his own living. "I don't want to depend on others," he says.

Starting over

Finland's tech sector has been in the doldrums since 2008, when demand for Nokia's mobile phones started its decline. Nokia, once one of the top employers in Finland, has shed more than 7,500 Finnish jobs since 2008, and tech-related manufacturing overall no longer fuels the economy.

Journalist Riku Rantala and filmmaker Tunna Milonoff thought asylum seekers might spark the Finnish economy with new internet-based businesses. They founded Startup Refugees to help do just that.

Backed by dozens of organizations and individuals, including the Ministry of the Interior, Microsoft and Finnish mobile learning company Funzi, Startup Refugees serves as a business incubator for asylum seekers.

SR started by interviewing 1,000 asylum seekers to discover their skills, goals and whether they even wanted to start a business. And they learned that 800 of them wanted to start a company of some kind.

If they succeed, the Finnish economy succeeds, SR's sole employee Camilla Nurmi tells me from a film production studio near the Helsinki waterfront.

"They could eventually be the ones to come up with the innovations the country needs," she says as she makes me tea. "It would be brain gain."

Overcoming bureaucracy

Last week, Sweden deferred Awad's request for asylum to Greece. It's just one example of the Dublin Regulation affecting lives.

In an email, she tells me she knew the travel documents she got from Greece could become a roadblock to Swedish asylum. But she also knows other migrants who've done the same thing and were granted legal residency.

"I think my case was depending on luck," Awad wrote, "but I don't have a good luck."

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