When people take risks, hoping to further their careers, they aren’t usually thinking about going back home. But for Dima Altabbaa, home is in Syria, and in the years she was away for college, a war had started.
Altabbaa had attended the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and when she graduated, she had job offers there. It was safer, and her friends would be around. But she also had an offer from Deloitte in Syria. It came down to choosing between comfort and doing what she thought was best for her career. Ultimately, she says, the job in Syria was too good to pass up.
Today, after working in Syria for more than two years, Altabbaa is getting her MBA at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. At 24, she’s one of the youngest in her class, and she says her experience working in Syria taught her invaluable lessons.
“It’s not easy to go to work everyday, knowing that you don’t know what might happen,” she says. “Your country is at war. But people still look forward, and they don’t give up. Everyone still gives it their all. Having hope with all this tension is something I learned, and I don’t think I’d have learned it anywhere else.”
NOT AS DIFFERENT AS ONE MIGHT EXPECT
Growing up in Syria is not as different from Europe or America as one might expect, Altabbaa says. There are some different traditions – for example, families are very close, and it is not unusual for people to live with their parents, even as adults. But Altabbaa says she did everything a child might want to do, from playing basketball with her friends, to learning how to play tennis and learning how to swim, among other things.
One notable difference – many people are multilingual. In the public school system, subjects are taught in Arabic, but students also have to learn English or French. Private schools, however, may also be taught via American or British school systems. The American schools follow the AP system, and the British schools follow the A Levels system.
Altabbaa went to a private school which followed the British system, so she’s spoken English her entire life, which was part of why she chose to leave Syria for college. Studying in a different country is not unusual for Syrians, she says, but it’s also not terribly common. But the University of Damascus teaches primarily in Arabic, and she thought it would be easier to go to an English-speaking school.
DECIDING TO GO BACK
“When I first moved away for college, there was no war in Syria,” she says. “So I didn’t have any plans about going back or not. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just looking for the best opportunities.”
When the time came, she had an offer from a company in Dubai, but couldn’t accept because she couldn’t get a visa. Her choices came down to going back to Syria, where there was a war, or staying in Lebanon with her friends.
In the end, she decided that having Deloitte on her CV would make a big difference, and that her priority was the quality of the job. She wasn’t going to turn down Deloitte just because she preferred to stay in Lebanon.
“When I look back, I really thank my 21-year-old self for making that decision to pack up and go back home,” she says.