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29 November 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:00pm

The bullying of a Syrian boy shows how harmful media attacks on refugees can be

The footage of a 15-year-old boy raises questions about bullying in schools, but also the consequences of intolerant attitudes to refugees. 

By Ammar Azzouz

“Beauty” is the English translation of the name of the 15-year-old Syrian boy who was the subject of physical and verbal abuse in his school in Huddersfield. In a video that was circulated widely on social media, the boy can be seen being pulled to the ground as his bully pours water on his face saying, “I’ll drown you.” 

“I woke up at night and just started crying,” the boy told ITV. “They think I’m different. Different from them.”

The footage of the incident has caused an outrage in the UK. It has raised questions about the others like him, the kids struggling alone with bullying in school. But it also sparked questions about the waves of intolerance against refugees and migrants in our “open” societies.

Here in the UK, many Syrians like myself have found a sanctuary, away from war and conflict.

But if the pain of being displaced is not enough, in the places refugees call “new homes”, violence and trauma can come in a different form. They face a new battle – of being accepted, of being welcomed, of being able to be who they are without the need to strip off their identity or hide their origins.

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The deluge of the Syrian refugees crossing borders to escape from war has been accompanied by some mainstream media and politicians portraying refugees in a bad light. Ultimately, given the way that they have been portrayed, it is not uncommon for some Syrians in the UK to face negative comments and more.

Researchers from Cardiff University found that the British press was more polarised than other European media outlets in covering the refugee crisis, with the Daily Mail more likely to focus on the threat refugees posed to welfare and benefits than the humanitarian situation they found themselves in. For example, when Syrian refugees were resettled on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, the Daily Mail called it “senseless” and demanded “Why are Syrian refugees being foisted on a remote Scottish island with high unemployment and poverty – then given perks some locals don’t enjoy?” In fact, the local council chose to participate in the resettlement scheme and the funding comes from central government. Meanwhile, The Sun gave provocateur Katie Hopkins a platform to call desperate people crossing the Mediterranean “cockroaches”.

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The 15-year-old in this video is not alone. And he is not the only one suffering. Other Syrians have had negative experiences in the UK as well. Some have had to hide their nationality or parts of their identity in some situations where they felt uncomfortable or unaccepted.

Some Syrian women have felt the need to remove their headscarves in order to be more accepted in society. One of my Syrian acquaintances who removed her hijab said that she feels her colleagues no longer ignore her. She said she feels that, “I am seen now – I am visible to them. I am somebody.”

A British man once told me that he wants to kick all Muslims, including myself, out of the country as we bring with us misery and mess. He told me migrants are ruining “our British culture”.

Others in the UK have created pre-determined stereotypes about refugees and migrants, heavily impacted and shaped by the media, which reports one angle of war and ignores the human element of the suffering.

A Syrian colleague told how, when renting a place in London, a landlady asked if he was gay. He said yes. After a year, when he moved out of the flat, he asked the landlady how she knew he was gay and why she wanted to know. The landlady said, “When you wrote to me [that] you are Syrian, I thought you will be one of those refugees; terrorists and extremists, but when I heard your voice on the phone, I felt you are gay, and gay people are nice. That is why I did not hesitate to let the place to you.” The man said he would have never stayed in the flat if he had known of her attitude towards refugees.

The struggle is not only this boy in Huddersfield, and it is not only the struggle of Syrians. It is the struggle of many people who strive to fit and feel free to be who they are in new spaces of refuge. They struggle because they are seen as “others” or as “outsiders” because of their race, colour, ethnicity, religion, or social class. Bullying is bullying. And it has to stop for all fragile and vulnerable people and kids experiencing it.

Despite the waves of intolerance to alternative points of views, however, many people celebrate diversity. Personally, I have benefited from great networks of care, love and support – as have many of my Syrian friends. I have incredible friends who have not only opened their doors to me, but their hearts too. They made me enter their lives. And they entered mine. They listened to my stories, and I did too. They felt my pain; I did too.

Their love is stronger than the hatred of the few. And this love what we need to build on.

With the tide of radical politics sweeping our world, and the media outlets and politics that divide and separates people, there is a need to rethink our cities, to bring people back together. To destroy the barriers separating people, to create tolerant, open, and inclusive cities of hospitality. Not cities that enhance hatred and divisions within communities.

Some may ask, why this boy’s story is being widely shared? And why the stories of other young, British kids bullied in the UK are not shared and treated? Maybe it is a moment to remember the struggle of everyone who is bullied. No matter who is the target. Maybe it is the hope that on day acceptance will be the norm, and no kid will struggle alone at school again.