The story of Syrian refugee, Jamal, and his sister's, horrific bullying in a British school playground hit a global nerve. Unfortunately, he's just one of many children at risk.

I didn’t anticipate the level of public outrage when I first posted the story online after being told that five weeks had elapsed since the incident first occurred and no definitive action had yet been taken.

Once the video was posted, against a backdrop of escalating social media coverage the bully was eventually charged and both Jamal and his sister were finally taken out of the school. 

Messages of support for Jamal came from all over the world, and it even prompted a reaction from the prime minister. The fact that a Syrian refugee displaced by war, trauma and loss which should have been able to start a safe, new life in England, only to be humiliated and physically attacked on school grounds struck a chord with so many.

As a medical doctor who deployed to Syria during the war, I have seen first-hand, the conditions from which these refugees have escaped with their lives. Many youngsters have witnessed the ugly realities of war losing family members, friends and their homes along the way - experiencing what no child should ever have to.

Life as a refugee child means that you have to grow up pretty quickly. Jamal would have been eight years old when the war started in his country. Some children in Syria have only known the conditions of war with thousands born into refugee camps. Many families have been displaced tens of times before they escaped into a foreign country and must start all over again. A new language, new home, an alien culture; all has to be balanced with the psychological trauma and baggage that comes with the instability of families separated by war, death and displacement.

Refugees fortunate enough to escape to countries bordering Syria like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have new dilemmas to encounter. With emergency relief, safe water, shelter and medicine being a priority, education is lower on the agenda, and many families rely on children to work to support their younger siblings; often labouring in fields.

Families previously living comfortably in Syria are now destitute, having lost or used up all their life savings, unable to make ends meet and have no choice but to migrate to build a better life for their children.

Under a UK Government scheme, families like Jamal’s have resettled in cities across the UK. During 2015, the first families arrived and relocated in remote communities such as Bute Island off the coast of Scotland.

In a short film I produced about this tiny minority, I explored the challenges that both the host community and newly arriving refugees faced. The children were still traumatised; cowering from the sound of overhead planes reminiscent of the warplanes bombarding them in Syria.

Adults began to integrate as best as they could into the small island community of just 7000 inhabitants. Some of the refugees experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), unable to forget the trauma of what they had experienced inside their home country.

Sadly, some were subject to prejudice, and eventually several of the families relocated from Bute, ironically to Huddersfield - the town where Jamal was bullied.

The placement of vulnerable refugee families must be considered carefully. While the majority of host communities are welcoming and keen to make life easier for new families, a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric both in the political and media sphere are contributing to race and faith-based hate crime through an undercurrent of right-wing ideology.

The language around immigration used by people in power and propelled into the public sphere by social media and mainstream news has a direct impact on families like Jamal’s. The vulnerability of refugee families in a new environment must be balanced by an element of familiarity, access to the Syrian diaspora, diverse communities and agencies that can help overcome the challenges of integration.

Identifying racial abuse and early intervention must be a priority in safeguarding all young children, but especially young refugee children who bear a much more significant burden than some of their peers. Past trauma leaves them much more vulnerable to developing poor mental health, scarring and self-harm - as in the case of Jamal’s younger sister who had attempted suicide after constantly being bullied over the last year.  

Bullying occurs daily in schools all over the UK. The level of race or faith-based hate crime in schools has risen sharply over the last several years. Figures from the Department of Education last year showed there were 4,590 cases of racial abuse in England and Wales resulting in a permanent exclusion from school.

One can argue that this trend in schools has translated from societal changes in attitudes towards people labelled as refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, migrants or foreign workers. Often the narrative around these labels is used as a political football for many different agendas.

In Jamal’s case, his bully was indoctrinated with right-wing ideology where immigration is nearly always discussed in negative terms. Without a doubt, extremism and the exposure of young people to a hateful ideology plays a part in playground violence against students deemed foreign.

The attack on Jamal and his sister cast a public light on bullying and prejudice in schools as well as the plight of refugee children and the challenges they face in adapting to new communities that don’t understand them.

Education of pupils, staff and governing bodies in diversity and inclusion must be the focus of lessons learned from this incident. Better policy and procedures including information sharing between Ofsted, local councils and the police when things get out of hand must also be addressed.

I have started a petition calling for an independent review and public inquiry of the failings in Jamal and his sister’s case which has gathered almost 100,000 signatures - many from parents of bullied children or adults who were subject to bullying themselves and have had lifelong issues in the aftermath. Lend your voice by signing the petition to ensure all children are safeguarded against bullying and robust measures are put in place to tackle hatred and violence in schools.   

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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