The suicide of a nine-year-old Syrian girl last month has organizations in Calgary scrutinizing their many services for newcomers, in hopes of preventing future tragedies.
Amal Alshteiwi’s family told CBC News the girl took her own life after bullying at her northeast school went unrecognized, unchecked and unreported for around six months.
Friends of the family say that could be because concerns raised with the school were lost in translation, and much of the bullying was done in Arabic, so went unnoticed by English-speaking staff.
“They were saying to her, ‘you’re stupid, you’re a monster, you’re ugly. Whatever you wear, you will still not look beautiful. You will always look ugly your whole life,'” said Amal’s brother, Abedalla, who is in Grade 5.
Amal leaves behind five brothers and sisters, as well as her mother and father. The family came to Alberta three years ago as refugees after fleeing war-torn Syria.
“It’s really hard. Now it’s really silent because she’s not here, and it’s really boring without her,” Abedalla said. “Bullying should stop.”
The Calgary Board of Education said an investigation following Amal’s death found no evidence of bullying.
Calgary Police Service said multiple interviews were conducted immediately following Amal’s death, but found no evidence of foul play.
‘Learn from my story’
The girl’s death is raising questions about the support and education available for newcomer families to deal with bullying and regarding how to identify problems and access help.
Where to get help:
- The Calgary Distress Centre has a 24-hour crisis line: 403-266-HELP (4357)
- The AHS Mental Health Help Line is also available 24 hours: 1-877-303-2642
- Call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at: 1-833-456-4566
The bullying began, her parents say, when Amal started struggling at school.
“It’s very, very hard, that she would do something like that,” said Amal’s mother, Nasra Abdulrahman, through an Arabic interpreter. “I want all parents to learn from my story. Something can happen the same as it happened to me.”
Another issue for newcomers is that many come from cultures of not raising issues with authority figures, and avoiding talking about family problems out of a fear of deep shame in the community.
‘What can we do better?’
Organizations that work with newcomers in the city want to make sure this doesn’t happen again. They’re taking Amal’s death as an opportunity to review programs and services.
“It’s devastating,” said Anila Lee Yuen, CEO with the Centre for Newcomers.
“Everyone really needs to regroup and recollect and really think about, in the midst of this, how do you move forward?”
She said the first thing her organization did, upon hearing of the girl’s death, was look into conducting an internal audit.
“What have we been doing? What can we do better? What’s out there in the community for us to get support from other groups and agencies, and how we collectively work together in the sector,” said Yuen.
There have been many programs offered in the city for many years, such as the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association’s cross-cultural parenting program, which has been around since the 1980s, Yuen said.
Immigrant Services Calgary said although there is a wealth of resources out there, only half of newcomers ever access them.
‘Channels are broken’
That organization is already taking action, organizing an event to talk about Amal’s case and what needs to change.
“We are holding a town hall meeting, inviting all stakeholders and anyone from the community that wants to talk about this issue,” CEO Hyder Hassan said.
One of the biggest barriers for Syrian newcomers in accessing help when they need it is effective communication.
“Communication channels are broken,” said Sam Nammoura, co-founder of the Calgary Immigrant Support Society.
He said many agencies in Calgary are missing the deep understanding of culture, language and communication needed to truly break through and communicate with Syrian newcomer families. Staff could stand to improve their cultural sensitivity, interpretation of languages and dialects, and understanding of the challenges faced by newcomer families, he said.
“They want newcomers to think like them, act like them, understand like them, but the problem is those newcomers, unless you address these issues in a way they are familiar with and a way they understand, nothing is going to happen,” he said.
Nammoura worked closely with Amal’s family since they arrived in Calgary and said her mother didn’t even know she could file a complaint about bullying.
‘Incumbent on all of us’
Another newcomer organization, Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth, also worked with Amal and her family.
“This family crossed our path and the settlement practitioner provided a wealth of resources,” CEO Umashanie Reddy said.
The family was first reached in 2016, and they returned for support in 2018, as well, she said. The organization provides advice and guidance to youth about bullying, cyber-bullying and social media bullying, while working with Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District.
“It’s incumbent on all of us to ensure the family has all the necessary resources to feel inclusive and safe,” said Reddy.
“I don’t know what we could have done better,” she said. “But there are often lessons learned.”
In an emailed statement, the Calgary Board of Education said the school Amal attended is working with students and families to heal from this tragic event and come together as a community.
If students and parents have concerns about bullying, they are encouraged to speak with their teacher and school principal, the board said.
Action ‘as soon as possible’
The town hall will be held May 2 at 11:30 a.m. MT at Immigrant Services Calgary.
“We’ll walk away with solutions for immediate action and implementation — so it’s not a discussion. We need to do something as soon as possible to address this issue,” Hassan said.
He said his organization has compiled a long list of groups that will be invited to the event, including: the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies, the Distress Centre Calgary, Calgary Foundation, the provincial government, City of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and Calgary Board of Education. Others, including newcomer families, are welcome, as well.
“It’s to see what else could we do to have multi-stakeholder partners on board,” he said. “So that this is the last time we hear of this ever again.”