The video of the Syrian refugee being violently assaulted by a bully at a school in Huddersfield was chilling as it circulated social media last week.
Outrage, anguish and the need to do something permeated the conversations of those who had seen the video and were left too distressed. There was something harrowing and unsettling, not just about the violent sadism of the bully who slammed the refugee to the ground and then poured water into his mouth, but the passive acceptance of the refugee to his fate, as if he had foreseen this as inevitable and had embraced it.
Later we would learn that this was not an isolated incident but the culmination of systematic bullying of the Syrian refugee, known as Jamal. In the same school, his sister had also been bullied. Jamal cried himself to sleep every night, hoping for a reprieve from his torment. Someone fled war, tyranny and oppression only to encounter a nightmare of a kind easier to relate to here.
The general social consensus was that this was deeply wrong, a sad reflection on the state of affairs in a country focused on an insular retreat from the rest of the world. People were stirred out of compassion to raise over a £100k for Jamal and his family, which suggests that empathy and generosity towards refugees is not yet lost to the right-wing rhetoric that those fleeing persecution and war can never find a home in Britain.
But there is a wider story to be conveyed here which is that political discourse and the nature of its language has prompted a rise in racism and stoked generally harsher attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers from countries like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and others. The debate around the EU Referendum in 2016 presented remaining in the European Union as some sort of process of melting away the walls that kept out the uncultured hordes, whoever they were seen to be. They could have been a Syrian refugee or a Romanian migrant. Racism is interchangeable and generous in who it targets.
This has particularly affected refugees, especially on the theme of integration. Britain has simply not taken in its fair share of refugees. We have failed on our basic humanitarian obligations but this has largely been allowed to happen because of public cynicism towards refugees. The far-right narrative has skewered perceptions of them, presenting them as some sort of cultural takeover facilitated by naive and benevolent actions. Isolated incidents in countries like Germany have fuelled the myths that refugees, particularly brown men, are a threat to native white society. And it doesn’t matter if you have a million heart-warming stories of the contributions made to society by refugees. Find a single negative story and it becomes depicted as a reflection on the collective character of everyone.
Yet charities like the Help Refugees, Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, Refugee Action and others have shown that it is not impossible. Those who have found a new home away from war and conflict are not inclined against integration. Far from it: the act of submerging within the local community and building new social bonds based on mutual generosity, family, reciprocity and love of the community. But they, and the refugees themselves, need help. Minority communities are not uncommon to building cultural walls if they feel there is only hate and animosity waiting for them on the other side. What are minority communities currently finding in Britain when they read the newspapers and see the language swirling in the air when discussing them?
We need to change how we talk about refugees and encourage a societal response to their peril based on greater kindness, compassion and sacrifice. Things like community, family and stability matter to people but a communitarian yearning is extremely compatible with compassion for refugees. The need to belong somewhere, to be part of a group, of a shared identity and history if anything is more likely to be embraced by people determined to make a new home out of the nation that offered them shelter from persecution. The ACAA, for example, helps integrate refugees from Afghanistan and Asian states into their local communities, promoting the kind of British values that the far-right claim is impossible for refugees to embrace.
There are countless stories of refugees reciprocating the compassion shown to them by becoming part of their local communities. What we need is the political will and courage to find these stories, listen to them and amplify them over the deluge of bigotry.