How do you say servo-valve in Swedish? Basel’s phrasebook helps refugee engineers

Conductivity, servo-valves and stator cores – even if you are fluent in a language you might not know these words. This was the challenge for Basel Taleb, a refugee and electrical engineer who learnt Swedish in a couple of months – yet couldn’t grasp the technical jargon at his new workplace. So he built a tool to help himself – and other foreign engineers – to understand the Swedish energy sector.

Basel Taleb stands in front of Kraftringen's facility in Lund where he worked on the phrasebook. ©UNHCR/Rufat Safarli

When he arrived in Sweden on Christmas Day in 2014, Basel was placed in a reception centre in a small village close to Simrishamn in the south. As an electrical engineer from a sprawling city in Syria, living in a small village was a challenge for the 28 year old.

“I was used to being around a lot of people. And while I was eager to experience the Swedish society, meet the people, and learn the language – it was difficult when living in a small village in the middle of nowhere” Basel said.

While waiting for the outcome of his asylum application, Basel taught himself Swedish by watching videos on YouTube and making his own lists of phrases and words. He studied every day for almost a year – until finally, in October 2015, Basel was granted a permanent residence permit. By this time, his little list of phrases had grown to over 2000 words.

With a permit, Basel now had access to Arbetsförmedlingen, the Swedish Employment Service, which offers access to Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) classes, followed by employment training such as internships or validation of work experience, and social orientation courses which give refugees a basic understanding of the Swedish society.

“My career advisor at Arbetsförmedlingen really supported and encouraged me. She told me that the Swedish energy industry needs to recruit engineers and that I had good chances of getting an internship and a job after that” Basel recalls, “this really helped me emotionally.”

Once Basel started studying Swedish for Immigrants, he finished the course in only three months. Soon after, he got an internship with the energy company Kraftringen.

“In Sweden you work on electricity grids damaged by storms. In Syria, I used to work on similar grids damaged by war. While the technology is more advanced in Sweden, the job is in essence the same.” Basel explains. “I was already almost fluent in Swedish, and I knew the job – but I still couldn’t get a grip of the technical vocabulary – how do you say valve?” he laughs.

Basel started collecting words and building a work-related vocabulary for himself. When his supervisor, Katarina Skalare, found out about his side project, she immediately understood its importance and encouraged him to develop it into a phrasebook.

According to Katarina Skalare, the energy sector in Sweden is looking for experts with different kinds of experiences and this was a way for them to contribute to integration.

“We are always looking for experienced engineers, and there is a great value in recruiting newcomers,” she said.

Basel got the assignment to develop his phrasebook as part of his work responsibilities, which became his first paid job at Kraftringen.

“I was happy that Kraftringen decided to invest their time, effort and trust in me – and I really enjoyed working on the phrasebook which now has more than a thousand words in Swedish, English and Arabic.”

The finished phrasebook was presented at several work fairs and became Kraftringen’s contribution to the integration of energy sector professionals arriving in Sweden. It was very well received.

“I hope that the phrasebook will be useful, not just for refugees entering the job market, but also as an example of how refugees bring with them valuable skills to their new societies.“ Basel says with a smile. “Many Syrians have a lot of great work experience but need opportunities to use it and show it. Kraftringen gave me this opportunity.”

Click below to access Basel’s phrasebook for newly arrived energy experts.