STOCKHOLM (Reuters) — Challenging the image of unemployed asylum seekers desperate for government help, many refugees in Sweden, especially well-educated Syrians, are defying discrimination and rigid labour laws to land good jobs.
One such young professional is Abdo Abou Shanab, 27, who worked as a risk officer and then financial controller at the Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi in Syria before fleeing the civil war, eventually arriving in Sweden in 2013.
After applying for 800 jobs, finding two mentors, starting a LinkedIn group with fellow students and even considering changing his name to get recruiters to read his applications, he landed a job as a controller at French catering giant Sodexo in Stockholm.
"We tried every possible avenue to find a job", he said. "I do not want to be here doing nothing. I want a job. I want to be part of society."
Immigrants struggle against discrimination, lack of contacts and the language barrier when trying to find their first job in Sweden.
Abou Shanab's way into work was an internship through the Short Route, a nationwide programme to help job searches for immigrant academics funded by the labour office and operated in the capital by Stockholm University.
Lovisa Faltskog Johansson, project leader at the Short Route, said speed is key. The longer newcomers stay without a job, the harder it is to help them.
"We usually say, why don't you just let us meet people at (Stockholm's) Arlanda airport and ask people what they can do," she said. "We have a lot of international companies here that don't even have Swedish as their corporate language at work."
Sweden welcomed more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation last year and expects as many as 90,000 refugees this year.
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Since 2008, the number of employed has risen by 300,000. Three quarters of that growth was among immigrants.
Immigration makes it easier to handle the demographic challenges of an ageing population and boosts potential growth, said Nordea analyst Torbjorn Isaksson.
"The employment rate among native Swedes is very high, and it is questionable if it can increase much more in many age groups."
Among major refugee groups entering Sweden between 2009 and 2013, roughly a third of Syrians had higher education, a far higher proportion than among Somalis, Afghans or Eritreans.
An archaeologist from Syria, Lusian Alassaf, 31, works at both the Royal Coin Cabinet and the Swedish History Museum, waits tables in a restaurant and is looking for a further job as a security guard.
He needs money to start a new life and help his family in Syria.
"Sweden without a job, trust me, it is like not having a life. It is like paradise without people. It is not a paradise, it is nothing," he said.
Refugees can even land much-coveted jobs at Sweden's high-profile start-ups. Syrian Rami Sabbagh, 31, arrived in Malmo in 2012.
A former economist, he now works as tax analyst for music streaming service Spotify after an internship through the Short Route programme and had his contract made permanent weeks ago.
"It was like signing for one of the big football clubs, like Barcelona or Real Madrid," Sabbagh said.
More immigrants have at least three years of higher education, at 29 percent for those who have arrived since 2000, than the 25 percent of native Swedes.
But at the other end of the educational range, the outlook for immigrants is bleak, said Joakim Ruist, migration researcher at the University of Gothenburg.
The share of immigrants without secondary schooling is almost twice as high as that of native Swedes. A third are unemployed, SCB data showed.
To lift employment rates among them, minimum wages would need to be cut, a political non-starter, Ruist said.
"Many of those that come here don't have secondary schooling and Sweden's economy is quite simply not built for that today," he said.
"If one wants to get this group into the labour market then the labour market has to be transformed into something different."