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Published: 2018-11-12

Far from home, but with his eyes set on success

PROFILE At the front of the classroom stands a man in a handsome suit. He’s trying to make himself heard through the murmur of voices. After a while, he gets everyone’s attention. The speaker is Ahmad Hussein, and the listeners have just completed the fast track teacher education, Snabbspåret, for newcomers to Sweden.

Image: Per Melander

Since he speaks Arabic, it's difficult for a Swede like me to follow. Every now and again people burst out laughing. He's got the audience the palm of his hand — just like any stand-up comedian.

"I like to use beautiful words and sentences and old proverbs, and it becomes somewhat exaggerated and amusing in the contexts they're in. Although, it makes it easier for students to remember what I've said," says ­Ahmad Hussein.

"I started at Umeå University in 1993 by taking a French course. Our teacher asked us to mention a personal fact to help her remember our names. When it was my turn, I said with a straight face, "Promise not to tell anyone, but Saddam Hussein is my cousin."

The classroom fell silent. It wasn't until a Moroccan fellow student finally said. "That's not right. Ahmad comes from Lebanon and hasn't got anything to do with Saddam Hussein", before everyone understood that ­Ahmad had been joking. Ahmad gives a big smile:

"The teacher is still around and she remembers me and my presentation of myself."

Currently, leading the fast track for newcomer teachers occupies Ahmad's time. He tells the story of how his own journey into Swedish society has given him enough experience to make him understand what many newcomers go through and what they need.

"For me, it took two and a half years to reach the level that those who take the fast track course manage in six months. And in the last course, we had 40 participants who all passed. Eighteen of them have jobs now, several others have internships. And those who haven't been offered a job yet can continue studying Swedish. Most of them can even go straight to the highest level of Swedish for immigrants."

"I often say to my fast track students that they're lucky to end up with someone as experienced as me, with a Swedish academic background that means I know the system. Other universities with fast track courses have even been in touch asking what form of 'medicine' we're offering here in Umeå for it to be so successful.

But what Ahmad does today was unthinkable when, in 1988, he found himself at the airport in the war-torn Beirut to bid his family goodbye. Ahmad Hussein was 21 and promised his mum and dad to seize all opportunities to succeed in life.

"When my father hugged me goodbye he took out his most precious pen and said: 'Take a look at this pen and you'll know what I mean,' and when I accepted the pen it was like promising to fulfil my dreams about studying, and making my parents proud."

That pen later became what paved the way for Ahmad Hussein's studies. Twenty-four years later, at the party celebrating his doctoral graduation in economic history, his wife called for everyone's attention and brought out a present.

"She opened it herself. It was a new pen that she said I had earned. I carry these two pens with me everywhere I go. As soon as I think about knowledge and education, these two pens come to mind — they give me strength to carry on."

A few days after Ahmad Hussein left Beirut in 1988 he stayed a month at a refugee camp outside of Stockholm before being shipped on to Kiruna. It was February and still dark for many hours of the day.

When I looked out across the camp everything was dark. All I could see were the lights on the skii slopes. I cried my eyes out. Missing my parents. Missing Lebanon. The orange groves. The sea and the sunshine.

"To me, it looked like everything ended with that last row of lights at the top of the slope. I thought that was the end of the world. Because what could possible be behind there?"

After that, everything happened quickly and Ahmad Hussein thanks God for having been sent to Kiruna. He describes his personality as someone who can take care of himself, standing on his own two feet. He started taking Swedish courses for immigrants (SFI) and describes how even his first week was decisive.

His SFI teacher Yvonne Niemi told him:

"Ahmad, you're 21 years old, but they way you speak and behave, you might as well be 40. You're mature and you will do well in Sweden. I hope I live to that day so I may see what you've become."

After eight months of learning Swedish, Ahmad became an interpreter for newcomers at the refugee camp. Despite the Migration Board seeing him as a role model for assimilation, it was only after two rejections and 22 months that he got a Swedish residency permit.

"Two days after I was informed, the coordinator called me to his office. He picked up a map of Sweden and laid it out. 'Here's Kiruna and here's Malmö. Please take your pick. Where do you want to live?' he said."

"Most of those who were given permits wanted to move to Malmö or Gothenburg. But I pointed to Umeå. He looked at me and said: 'Are you crazy, Ahmad? It's snowy and cold there, everyone wants to move south.' So I told him that my SFI teacher Yvonne Niemi, who had done her teacher training in Umeå, had told me to move there. She'd said that Umeå was young and not as xenophobic as southern cities."

In 1989, Ahmad came to Umeå and the first thing he asked his coordinator was how to get into the University. In response, he was told to take it easy. He was going to find out, but first he was asked to start working as an interpreter; rumour of his achievements at the job in Kiruna had reached the Umeå immigrant coordinators. While interpreting and translating, Ahmad started studying and continued until 2007.

But working as a full-time interpreter was no longer possible from the year he was admitted as a doctoral student. The choice of economic history was yet again dependent on a personal meeting, this time with study counsellor Lennart Olofsson at the University, who himself had been to Lebanon and Cyprus as a UN soldier back in 1967.

"When he heard my life story, and about the war and my interest in politics and history, he told me to forget my thoughts of becoming an economist or an engineer. When he heard my life story, about the war and my interest in politics and history, he told me to forget my thoughts of becoming an economist or an engineer. Instead, he saw fit for me to study economic history."

In 2012, Ahmad Hussein completed his doctoral education after having been the single admitted student among 14 applicants to the doctoral education in economic history — in part because he had already written a book about the complicated Palestine conflict.

Born and raised in Lebanon. Adult life in Sweden. "A rich life of two cultures — the best of two worlds." That's how Ahmad Hussein summarises things. His way of seeing it is the life he's led so far has affected him in a purely positive way.

Before we wrap up, I need to ask him about the SFI teacher Yvonne Niemi. Did she get to see what he'd become?

"I tried to find her for my defence of my doctoral thesis — but without success."

It would have been great to have had her there to show her how right she'd been in 1988 when she really saw a 21-year-old man, alone and far from home, but with a strong desire to succeed.

Text and photo: Per Melander
Translation: Anna Lawrence

This article was first published in the magazine Aktum no. 1 2018.

Ahmad Hussein

Does: Project manager and teacher at Snabbspåret.
Family: Married with four children.
Hobbies: Gardening, following news coverage, writing poetry, football and volleyball.
Watches: No time for TV.
Favourite food: Lebanese.
Latest book-read: The First Industrial Revolutions by Peter Mathias and John A. Davis.
Dreams of: To write a book about oil extraction in Lebanon that becomes a bestseller.
Bok: Ahmad Hussein's book Den välkända konflikten och den eftertraktade freden was awarded a Prize by the Swedish Arts Council in 2003 for its nuanced description of the Middle East and Palestine.