Have you ever wondered what it is like to study in Sweden with a disability? Are the country and its universities accessible? What resources are available? I talked to Mohamad Nesrini, a former student and SI scholarship holder about how he overcame a traumatic injury, how he found Sweden as a study destination, and what his experience was like living, studying, and working with a physical disability here in Sweden.
The Significant Moment
17 years ago, a dramatic and traumatic accident changed Mohamad’s life forever. During his last year of high school while living in Syria, Mohamad survived a fall from a five-story apartment building . Fortunately, He fell on a metal water tank and his head did not get touched. However, the fall caused a spinal cord injury due to vertebral fractures in the lower spine. In addition to other fractures in the pelvic bone, feet and upper arm. Immediately after the fall, Mohamad was hospitalized and went through an emergency operation to fix the spine and release the spinal cord. However, there was a severe damage in his spinal cord and nerves, which resulted in permanent damage and paralysis in the lower limbs. After two weeks in the ICU, Mohamad thought he would be able to walk again and didn’t realize there was a permanent damage until he touched his legs and had no feelings or movement. While his perception of this event has changed after 17 years, Mohamad still accounts the experience as scary, frustrating, and even depressing.
Because of the accident, Mohamad lost functions in his lower body, sensations, and movements that took time to recover and adapt to his new normal. During the first year after the accident Mohamad was hospitalized, underwent multiple operations, and rehabilitation programs. The second year after the accident revolved even more around rehabilitation and physical therapy which helped him to regain some movements in his legs and ability to walk with forearm crutches that he uses today.
A Changed Perspective
What is amazing about Mohamad is his positive outlook on life after such an accident. Even though the accident had a profound effect on him, he continued to live his life as “normal.” With determination he could find new ways to adapt and overcome challenges. Mohamad finished his bachelors’ studies in Biotechnology at university and graduated with honors. He credits his friends and coleagues who were part of his social support. Instead of succumbing to the accident that almost took his life, Mohamad developed a strong will and appreciation of life. After realizing that he almost lost his life Mohamad says he started to embrace his life and living it to the fullest.
And after 17 years since the incident, Mohamad says that the fall has been a transformative experience for him as it changed his life, put him on a specific growth path, gave him a new purpose, perspective, hope, and a spirit for overcoming challenges and solving problems. Overall, Mohamad says that he is grateful and happy for what happened in the past and that it never affected him, his abilities to accomplish things, to enjoy life and even to come to Sweden.
The Start of a New Journey
But Mohamad didn’t always think about Sweden as a study destination. It wasn’t until he met his friend for dinner in 2011. The pair got together as Mohamad’s friend was leaving Syria to do a master’s at Lund University funded by Erasmus Mundus. This was Mohamad’s first time hearing about Sweden and Lund University although he had known about Sweden’s reputation for human rights and innovation. Mohamad kept the idea of studying in Sweden in the back of his mind and told his friend that they could maybe meet one day in the future.
Fast forward a couple of years, a Lund University master’s acceptance, along with an awarded and fully funded Swedish Institute (SI) study scholarship, Mohamad found his way to Sweden. This was a dream come true for him as he always wanted to pursue a master’s degree abroad since completing his bachelors in Syria. Mohamad says that he was attracted to Sweden’s openness, tolerance, and the quality of its high eduction and research. However, when he applied, he had a lot more research to do when it came to Sweden’s education and healthcare system.
The Big Move
Moving to Sweden was a big challenge for Mohamad as he left many of the comforts and help at home in Syria such as the ability to get rides from friends and the taxi service he frequently used to get around. The challenges of moving were made easier for him all thanks to an international coordinator at Lund University who met Mohamad at the airport when he arrived in Sweden. Mohamad and the international coordinator had been in contact during his application and admission where she had asked what he needed when it comes to getting around and accommodation. The two are still in contact to this day.
I am so happy and grateful that what happened happened and never affected my life and my abilities to accomplish things and to enjoy life and to come to Sweden.
Challenges Take Place
While Mohamad had help from the international coordinator at Lund University, the process of getting settled wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Mohamad was first placed in a shared accommodation that wasn’t accessible for him and recounts that the first 4 months of living there were challenging and difficult to manage things. Mohamad also found it hard to know who to contact both at the university and the municipality to get the resources he needed. The Swedish language and the long waiting time to get a personnummer (personal number) and appointments for bank account and assistance were significant barriers as well that even affected his ability to focus on lectures and studies during the first semester.
Life Gets Better
However, after getting a more accessible student accomodation, and a personnummer so that he can access resources and support needed, things started to get better for Mohamad. For example, he was able to get a home service to help with cleaning his apartment and also utilized a taxi service to get around. A few months later Mohamad was able to get a mobility scooter that he says made his life much easier and made him more independent. Although it took a while for things to get together, things eventually came into place for Mohamad.
The Experience of Being a Student
When it came to making friends and socializing, Mohamad says his experience in Sweden was positive. Mohamad credits the international and student environment in Lund and at the university, where he built many connections and made great friendships with people and students from all over the world. He states that he had a really good time overall and the big international community of students helped him build friendships and important connections. “After all, there were a lot of wonderful moments during my studies, and great opportunities for networking and learning about so many things.” says Mohamad.
Life Post Graduation
After graduating with a master’s degree in biotechnology from Lund University, it was time for Mohamad to look for an employment which wasn’t an easy task. However, after many job applications, he was able to get an internship for a couple of months followed by a job offer as a lab engineer in a biotech company here in Sweden. At this company he was provided assistance to make the job more accessible for him, such as a comfortable chair and accessible table in the lab. After 2 years working in the lab, Mohamad decided to make a career shift to working in business and sales not because of accessibility but because of his friendly, outgoing personality that makes him love to work with people. Today Mohamad works with Sales & Business Development in a Pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Malmö and states that it is the best shift he has ever made.
A Word for Prospective Students
When asked what encouragement or advice he would give to prospective students that have a disability and are worried about whether Sweden will be helpful or accommodating Mohamad says that he advises prospective students to reach out to the university coordinators early on and inform them about whatever their situation and needs might be. Mohamad also advises students to be patient and ask for help when needed. “Almost everyone here in Sweden speaks fluent English and people are nice and helpful so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help.”
An Experience of a Lifetime
Even though there were positives and negatives to his experience living and studying with a disability in Sweden, Mohamad says that being an international student in Sweden was a life changing experience that expanded his network, especially being a member of the SI global network of scholarship holders. Mohamad was impacted by the contacts he built, the workshops and conferences he participated in, and the learning he gained that he says is much more than in the walls of the classroom. “You learn so many things and many values, so I think it’s an amazing experience in all to be a student in Sweden.”
A frightening and harrowing accident changed Mohamad’s life 17 years ago. While the accident left him physically paralyzed, it didn’t immobilize his spirit or determination for life. After recovering, Mohamad went on to complete his bachelors degree and later on his master’s degree here in Sweden at Lund University. Even though the first few months in Sweden brought quite a few challenges, things got better for Mohamad and he flourished, finding friends and a community. Today Mohamad still resides in Sweden and lives and works in Malmö.