Starting over: Lana Haddad, in the SSE library, found herself on a different career path to the one she had planned

Finding a job in a new country can be difficult and demoralising. Lana Haddad knows — at the age of 31 she has done so twice, first fleeing in fear of her life and then moving for love.

Haddad was forced to leave her home country, Syria, when fighting broke out in 2012, arriving in Saudi Arabia, where her father was working. After four years there, just as she was starting to enjoy her life and new career in events management, she moved to Sweden. The reason was to be with her longtime partner, who had been granted asylum there.

She found herself starting over once again, but this time with the added difficulty of a new language. Despite a degree — she read French literature at Damascus University — fluent English and many years of work experience in administration in different sectors, she did not hear back from the companies she applied to, even for the English-speaking roles.

Haddad became depressed, she says. “I was waking up in the middle of the night searching for jobs.”

What turned things around for her was winning a place on the competitive Rapid Acceleration Management Program (RAMP), launched by Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) in 2016 to speed the integration of highly skilled refugees in Sweden. Over 10 months, participants took classes on Swedish and European law, culture, economy and politics, alongside a seven-month internship with one of the companies sponsoring the course.

What she learnt at SSE and the people she met would lead her on to a path quite different from the future she had once planned.

During her early school years in Damascus, Haddad was taught by French nuns who gave her a love for new languages. When she graduated in 2011, her ambition was to forge an international career in diplomacy. For a few months she worked as an executive secretary for the board of directors at the Bank of Jordan in Syria, but then the war came.

Her office was in a Damascus suburb on the highway leading to the city of Deraa, a dangerous road on which there were frequent shoot-outs. “Sometimes the road would be blocked and I would not be able to drive home and I would just have to sit in my car and wait for the shooting to stop,” she recalls.

Around her, colleagues were leaving one by one. “They did not know what they were going to do, but they knew it was not sustainable to stay and work there,” she says. Most of her former colleagues left for Dubai and Saudi Arabia, or Europe and the US if they had the right visa.

It was not until Haddad and her mother spent a night hiding beneath their dining room table, with the balcony door wide open because flying bullets made it too dangerous to close, that they decided to leave and join her father in Saudi Arabia. “I took a month’s holiday from work because I thought I was coming back,” Haddad says. She packed a few clothes and left her car under a friend’s flat. “It was my last time in Damascus.”

Riyadh was a culture shock, but Haddad says it got easier once she started working. She spent four years working in Saudi Arabia, using her administration background to land roles in events, accounting and the management of an international skin clinic.

Yet, she was missing her partner, Aziz Laktineh, who was finishing his masters degree in network engineering in Syria, hoping things would get better. Looming mandatory military service for the Asaad regime eventually forced him to leave. In 2013, he moved to Sweden, after the country announced that Syrians seeking asylum would be granted permanent residence. “And we had to be together to start a family,” says Haddad, who joined him in the winter of 2015, soon after which they were married.

Haddad found out about the RAMP programme from a support officer at the Swedish Public Employment Services, who told her to apply but to not get her hopes up as admissions were very competitive. After taking the GMAT business school admissions test and several rounds of interviews, Haddad was one of 14 people awarded a place on a course that SSE markets as a mini-MBA.

Haddad, with Aziz Laktineh, on their wedding day

“The programme taught me how to have self-awareness at work; how to identify a company’s values and match them with my own,” Haddad says. It also changed how she viewed potential employers. “I became more open to working at start-up companies and would look at factors such as the company’s position in the market and the possibilities for me to grow and develop my skills.”

During an internship at the Swedish law firm Delphi, moving between various departments such as marketing and administration, she developed many core business skills by learning on the job. Much of her work was studying competitors and evaluating Delphi’s strengths and weaknesses.

The knowledge was useful, Haddad says, but the networking was key. She recalls how mention of the business school would pique people’s interest. “I was in an elevator with a friend, speaking in Arabic, and I told her I’m studying at Stockholm School of Economics — saying the name in English. Everybody turned around to look at me, I felt like I had said the magic word.”

Through a classmate, Haddad learnt of a recruitment company called Novare Potential that specialises in matching nyanlända (“newcomers”) — a word used for new immigrants in Sweden — with jobs that suit their skills and experiences. She got in touch to apply for a job opening at PwC and so impressed Novare executives that they offered her a job in their own business.

Lana Haddad and her boss Farzad Golchin, of Novare Potential, with photos of refugees and others they helped to place

“They saw that I’m a people person, good at building networks,” Haddad says. Since 2017, she has worked as a headhunter, looking for immigrant workers with skills that match the requirements of clients including PwC, Deloitte and the Swedish lorry and bus manufacturer Scania.

“It is not like we are just offering them a job. It is life changing,” Haddad says. A car mechanic from Syria whom she placed successfully, cried when he heard the news. “He had been so depressed because he could not get a job,” she says. Another woman from Georgia had worked as a cleaner for five years, despite experience in project management alongside excellent English and good Swedish. “When I told her she had been offered a job in administration she said she would not be able to sleep before she had actually signed the contract.”

Many Swedish companies are eager to diversify their workforce as they seek to better reflect the country’s population and target audience, says Farzad Golchin, founder and chief executive of Novare Potential. The business, which is part of a group specialising in recruitment and leadership development, predicts its turnover will reach SEK30m (roughly £2.5m) in 2018, up from SEK4m at its launch in early 2016.

The company, which hires candidates for the first year to offer clients a flexible trial period, has successfully matched 115 people, of which 98 per cent went on to sign permanent contracts with the client company. This year it is on track to place 70 people, with a target to match 1,000 people with the right roles by 2023.

The company finds it easier to place immigrant candidates today, compared with 2016. “The assumption was that immigrants will have a special need, that the language barrier will be a problem even though the candidate has more relevant experience than most other people working in the company,” Haddad says. “Now companies are more open-minded.”

She is, however, tired of the mainstream portrayal of refugees as pitiful victims or a problem. “We are professionals with an international background — we can work,” she says.


1987 Born in Damascus

2010 Joins the Bank of Jordan in Syria as an executive secretary for the board of directors

2011 Graduates in French language and literature from Damascus University 2012 Leaves for Saudi Arabia and works as a manager of a beauty clinic and later as an events manager

2015 Joins her partner in Sweden

2016 Enrols on Stockholm School of Economics’ RAMP programme

2017 Headhunter at Novare Potential

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