How my degree in Engineering saved my life

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free

“I am Free” written in Arabic letters on a necklace

Update: This was published in GDG Dublin newsletter May 13-2015

Do you believe in the butterfly effect? I think that effect started the day I chose to apply for the Information Technology Engineering School, maybe before. I was just done with high school and still disoriented where to head after.  Back in 2003 in Syria, we didn’t have the luxury of college tours or someone explaining what every college teaches. We didn’t even have a website for the university back then. The only way for applying to college was to write a list ordered by the applicants most desired major choices , and depending on their marks and seats availability, they get accepted based on what they registered for in order. Usually, applicants order their lists by the major of higher score. For example, Medicine, Engineering schools, Science and so on.

Everyone wants to be a doctor

The highest income job and the most prestigious degree. Every family wants their daughters and sons to apply for Medicine School, even if they hate it, even if they faint for the scene of blood  and even if they threatened to commit suicide. As long as they have the highest marks, they will apply. Many families were torn apart by this decision. Many students try to rebel against their parents and end up studying drama or arts. The father can literally abandon them for a decision like that. Things might have loosen up recently but Medicine will always be the parents favourite field of study. For me, I didn’t have that pressure luckily, but I was  expected to study something worth my grades. It was like having a lot of money and buying only a chocolate bar instead of a full meal! No matter how much you love chocolate, you don’t waste your money on snacks while you can buy the real thing.
At that stage, I was torn between my literature half and the scientific one. I knew I love reading novels and writing essays, short stories and poems. but on the other hand I love technology and challenging problems. So, I made up my mind by writing only two choices in my list. Information Technology Engineering and then English Literature. Everyone in my family freaked out about this risky list and they split into two groups: The scientific group and the non-scientific group. Dear readers, you have to know first that every single decision like this is always open for debate for all family members/relatives/friends. Everyone should have a saying in how you should live your life, and how ignorant you are by not choosing their way, their wise way. The scientific group were worried about the probability of me not getting accepted into Engineering and the fact that I should write more scientific options before “giving up” to literature, that ugly field that is not worth my high marks and where I will end up as a miserable teacher. While on the other hand, the non-scientific group were worried about the probability of me getting accepted into Engineering and the fact that I won’t be able to get married with all the hard work of college! Yes, women were not encouraged to go through these paths because that was not what she was destined to do eventually. If she had to study, really really had to, she would better choose a simple major, something that won’t stand in her way of raising a family and looking after a house and a husband. In addition, that major should not require much attendance or labs sessions. She could just read the books and notes from home, show to the exams, and then get a certificate eventually. I ignored them all as much as I could and took the risk. I simply didn’t want to spend my life studying something I don’t like. I would be happy studying both fields. Eventually I got accepted into IT Engineering, and the journey began.

Five years of full commitment

Five years of hard work, long night stays, frustrating moments, bugs and debugging, projects overlapping, crying, laughing and many good stories to tell.  
I remember the first year was the hardest. It was all new to me. I wasn’t used to that much load of readings and assignments. In addition, lecturers were not bothered to explain much. It was all up to us students to know it all and look for the information everywhere. The scientific group of relatives, the smaller group, kept admiring my hard work while the antagonists were trying to make me regret this decision in every possible occasion. One time, I was at a family gathering after a long absence from social occasions. Everyone started to blame me for that and before I knew it, I was apologising for being busy studying! My aunt commented: “Well, we told you to go for English Literature instead of this hard major. You’d have been married by now!” I smiled, I left and I disappeared for a longer time.
By time, I found my harmony in the Software Engineering specialization life. I enjoyed building stuff from scratch, finding solutions, automating tasks and writing code which made me feel as a poet in a strange to explain way.  With the company of good colleagues it ended up to be a great adventure to go through.  Eventually, when I reached the graduation moment, the moment I got introduced to the community as The Engineer, the moment I was handed my Engineering certificate, and saw my mom’s proud tears in the middle of the graduation ceremony crowds, it was worth all that. I entered the working market in KSA where I was raised and my family worked for a long time ago. I got my first job there in a big telecommunication company. It was not as exciting as I thought it would be. I wasn’t living the moment because I left my heart in Syria and I wanted to go back.
Three months later, I managed to fulfill that. I emailed few friends and applied for jobs until I got one in Syria. The job was pure programming. No benefits, no interesting things to explore, no fancy place to work in and not even a personal desk. I took it just to start something. I did what I had to do until I found the next best job. We didn’t have many interesting companies in Syria. The business sector was controlled by government mainly which made it hard for the international companies to access the Syrian market. In addition to that, The US embargo made it a forbidden zone specially in the IT sector. That also affected any plans for any Syrians to get a certificate from US IT companies inside Syria (like Oracle or CISCO). They had to travel to the neighbouring countries to do the required exams.

The wind of change

I jumped between two jobs before the war started in 2011. I fell in love, got married and had to leave. It was the hardest thing to do as I always wanted to make my country a better place to be. I even started courses in First Aids in order to volunteer in the Red Cross and make something, anything, better than watching the news, listening to the explosions and reading the daily increased obituary of people around me. But I reached a stage where staying there was not an option for me, I had to leave convincing myself I will be back when things get better to rebuild the new Syria.
I travelled with my husband to Egypt. We had big plans for a new future there. We had dreams of working with big companies and settling for a while, but things don’t go exactly the way you plan. Life in Egypt was hard for many reasons. Mainly because the country itself was just out of revolution and things were still unstable. Many other reasons were added later on: My father-in-law death in Syria, the uprising in Egypt, the government decision of preventing Syrians from accessing Egypt any more and stopping their visas renewal. Things got worse and worse. Looking for a job was not easy for Egyptians not to mention Syrians. We had only one option to survive. Freelancing. With few connection, my husband, who also worked in the programming field, managed to get some offers for creating online applications. We were working day and night in our small apartment and on the other hand trying to search for a job outside the corrupted Middle East but that was never easy. All countries considered Syrians as burden and threat. It was hard to find an opportunity for job, study or to just get a tourist visa. Even when my husband got an offer in Dubai, it didn’t include me accompanying him and he couldn’t leave me behind specially that if one of us left, he couldn’t come back due to the visa laws.
It was a depressing period, and it was supposed to be our honeymoon phase. We spent it in deep grief, busy working, fighting, worrying about the future and afraid to leave the house often in order not to be arrested for non-renewed visa. I was suffocating there and leaving was not possible. I always fought for my freedom but I was paralyzed there. Freelancing kept me kind of alive. I felt useful and productive somehow and all I needed was my computer, an internet connection, and my knowledge. We met few neighbouring Syrian families who left Syria as well to find a better place to live but couldn’t find jobs. One of them was a very talented doctor who we knew back in Syria. We hanged out together and shared our hopeless stories of the daily life in Egypt. “ I can’t practice medicine as a freelancer. You are lucky to be programmers!”. We never realized that before we heard this from a doctor, the highly paid job in the world and the most popular major. He made us realize the full half of the the half empty glass.
This pushed me to consider expanding my knowledge by getting a certificate as a programmer associate in Java from Oracle. I registered for the exam and started preparing for it. I was so excited to achieve this goal and was so confident that I can make it. It was only when I arrived at the exam center that I was shocked to know I am not allowed to take the exam because of my Syrian nationality and my non renewed residency in Egypt. Just like that, the employee in the exam center gave me back my ID with a sincere apology for lacking of other solutions. I was crushed. It was worse than failing the test. All this preparation and studying went for nothing. It felt like the whole world is planning to surround the Syrians and kill them slowly. It was a bigger war than me and I can’t seem to win it.

White Flag, Black Flag

In that period, Syrians illegal immigration started to take place in the world. News of people drowning in the middle of the sea was spreading like fire in our already burnt hearts. Everything was going bad. I never felt that much depressed in my life. And after many jobs/immigration refusals we got, this idea became tempting to me. Why not? Better than acting like living a life. Let’s create one.
I remember talking to a friend about this and she freaked out. “Don’t you ever risk something like this” she said. After few days she sent me an email with a title: “Apply ASAP!!!”. I was half asleep when I read the email. It was about a job in the company she worked with in Ireland. “Great, one more job to apply for” I had my resume ready so I send it to the email address she specified and went back to sleep. I was sleeping most of my time. I didn’t want to be alive in this life, and I didn’t believe in suicide or drugs so sleeping was the only way to sedate my soul.
I still remember the first email. The first of many emails I got regarding this job. I was asked for an interview from a big international company. I never believed it. I was so happy and nervous. A video interview? with multinational people? in English? I have never done that before! I don’t know how to do that. What would they ask, what would they expect from me. I read all the interview questions over the internet. I tried to prepare as much as I could. This is a one life time chance and I don’t want to miss it. I did the first, technical, scary, not so much clear voice interview. Days later, I got an email asking for a second HR interview. I was more comfortable at this one and talked in confidence about me. Weeks later, nothing happened. My email notification sound was more than enough to give me a nervous break down every time it rang. My heart beat stopped when ever I heard it, rushing to check my email but then not finding the long awaited letter was so frustrating.

A meal to remember

One day, my husband invited me out for lunch just to help me get out of this mood and try to relax. I dressed up and put all my effort to chill but in the end it was all what I talked about during lunch. “What if they hire me? What if they don’t? Could you imagine us living abroad? I really don’t want to stay here forever” My husband was acting calm but deep inside he was as stressful as me or maybe more. This job was the light at the end of the tunnel. It was the only thing that kept us waking up in the morning and waiting for something to change in our life.
Burgers. I was eating burgers when my mobile screen flashed with an international number. It’s them! I grabbed the mobile and went outside the restaurant to hear clearly. This is it. The moment of truth. I wasn’t hearing clearly so I kept on walking not noticing how far I got until I finished the call.  I am accepted. Me. I am in! I ran my way back to my poor husband who was nervous to receive the news. I was jumping all over the place. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at me. ” I am accepted. They want me!” He was in shock. It was something enormous. International companies abroad don’t just accept someone far far away like this. They don’t even reply to the resume. I was so happy I couldn’t finish my burgers. I wanted to tell everyone, my family, my friends, my whole world. It was and will always be the happiest day in my life. It wasn’t an easy journey.
The visa process was longer and more complicated than I thought of. Above all that, My husband’s visa was not approved at first so I had to take a leap of faith. I travelled without him not knowing how we could reconnect again but thankfully, he managed to join me after three months.

May the luck of the Irish be with me!

Today, I happily write from Ireland, the country of luck, about the day that changed my entire life path, for ever. Every time I take a walk in Galway peaceful streets I feel blessed for being here. I am pursuing my dreams, I managed to acquire the long awaited certificate from Oracle and I am learning more and more every single day. I still enjoy English literature and writing some thoughts whenever I get the chance to. The project of writing a book will always be present in my life. Proud to be a successful female Software Engineer and grateful for that.

Suad Al Darra 26-April-2015

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6 responses »

  1. Pingback: I am a woman, I am brave | Letters from Galway

  2. Pingback: Networks, Airbnb, and the United Nations | Letters from Galway

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