For hours, Jihad Hijazi, a 39-year-old Syrian father of three, was hunched over a live stream from four closed-circuit television cameras he had installed around his home.
Eyes fixed on the screen through the night, he was watching for attackers who might approach.
His teenage son Jamal was getting death threats from boys at his school and far-right supporters from across the UK. Fearing someone might follow through on their threats, Jihad positioned two cameras facing the front of his house, one facing the path at its side, and one pointing towards the street.
Jihad had fled their home in the ravaged city of Homs in 2012 with his sons Jamal and Jalal, his daughter Farah and their mother Sawsan. After four years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, the family moved to a suburb of Huddersfield, a former textile town in West Yorkshire.
They had been told about British tolerance, how people of different faiths and ethnicities co-existed happily. But what should have been a peaceful new life was shattered when an escalating cycle of school bullying suddenly became a global talking point about ugly, casual racism.
Jamal, a tall, quiet 15-year-old, was getting used to physical and racial abuse from a group of white boys in his class at Almondbury Community School, a struggling state school. He would be called “Paki” by boys who pushed him around and threw him to the ground.
For weeks, his father appealed to the school, the local council and the police to stop the attacks, without success. Then a video was posted on Twitter by user @saeed6ali.
This Syrian refugee has endured months of racist bullying in a school in Sheffield, the thugs already broke his arm and now mockingly waterboard him when they get a chance, name and shame these thugs,school and police have done little to help. pic.twitter.com/JMkJ1aFgCq
— blue days dark nights (@saeed6ali) November 27, 2018
The now infamous images showed one boy, Bailey McLaren, approach Jamal on the school field. Jamal stood still, looking away. Bailey grabbed him by the neck, putting him in a chokehold and slammed him to the floor.
“Come here, ya little bastard.”
While holding him down by the neck, he poured water down Jamal’s face.
“Ya little bastard. I’ll drown ya.”
Jamal writhed, trying to protect his face. When a teacher approached out of shot, the pupils scattered. Jamal got up and walked away as if nothing strange had happened.
In the days that followed, the video spread around the world on social media. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, condemned the attack, and £160,000 was raised through crowd-funding to support the family. The school and community of Almondbury, painted as racist, grew defensive. Some blamed the Hijazis for creating trouble and the far-right activist Tommy Robinson held a rally outside Bailey’s house, spreading an unsubstantiated counter-narrative that Jamal had attacked the white children himself. The family received messages from Robinson’s followers telling them to go back where they came from.
After Robinson pounced on the story, police visited the Hijazis’ home. “Shut your windows, close your doors,” officers told Jihad. “Don’t let anyone know you are inside. And don’t open your door, whoever knocks.”
Jihad refused to sleep, hunched over his CCTV, for several days. Two days after the video went viral, Barry Sheerman, Huddersfield’s Labour MP, asked the school and council to safeguard the Hijazi children. Both replied that they had everything under control.
Later that day, Jamal’s sister Farah came home with a black eye after her hijab was ripped off at school and she was pushed down a hill by friends and siblings of Jamal’s bullies.
Jihad couldn’t understand why his family was being targeted. They had come to the UK to be safe. Why us? What had we done to make people so angry, he asked himself. “It was clear we needed to move,” he said. “My children couldn’t go out and live their lives, they couldn’t make friends.”
Five months after the viral video, Kirklees council looks set to close the school, after an emergency review by the schools regulator Ofsted found it failing in all its responsibilities.
Bailey McLaren has been given a police caution for assault after the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was insufficient evidence to show his attack was racially aggravated.
The Hijazis have moved out of Almondbury and Yorkshire to a new city, which they want to keep secret for their own safety.
They remain on edge when outside, and a TV in the living room continues to stream from the same four CCTV cameras, now outside the new home. Jamal is looking for a new school and the stress of life in the UK has triggered in Jihad a combination of physical ailments that have rendered him disabled.
“If the UK doesn’t like refugees, why do you bring them here?” says Jihad. “I ask myself this all the time.”
The Hijazis were picked by the UN to join 20,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict whom David Cameron, then the prime minister, pledged to resettle over five years. The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme selected families from refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon, usually those with children, people with disabilities or who are severely traumatised.
Compared with other refugees, the Hijazis had won the golden ticket. Those on the scheme are sent to the UK and receive a new home in a new community, with an integration plan to help them settle.
They receive a welcome at the airport. Local councils arrange English lessons and jobs programmes, find school places for children. A designated support worker is on hand to smooth out any issues.
None of this is available for most of the 68 million people displaced worldwide annually. Asylum seekers arriving spontaneously in the UK are not allowed to work while they wait for refugee status and once approved have 28 days to find housing and a job. Huge numbers fall into destitution. Being on the Syrian resettlement scheme should transform the life chances of a family fleeing persecution.
In Syria Jihad worked as a decorator, and Jamal, Farah and Jalal went to school, until bombs flattened their neighbourhood and Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces started arbitrarily arresting and killing people. One of Jihad’s cousins was missing, feared dead. Another was tortured and killed.
They fled to the sprawling Beddawi refugee camp for four years. In seeking relocation to Europe, Jihad told himself his biggest priority was his children’s education.
They received cultural orientation from a British United Nations worker in the camp, which painted Britain as a welcoming place. Although they knew nothing of Huddersfield or Yorkshire when they arrived in 2016, they were overjoyed to be one of the first families on the UK resettlement scheme.
Where Syrian refugees have settled
The UN’s Refugee Agency, the two main British charities, Refugee Action and the Refugee Council, and many local councils up and down the country are all broadly enthusiastic about the scheme. While the Trump administration admitted only 11 Syrian refugees in 2018, the UK is on target to resettle the promised 20,000 by 2020 and most of them enjoy safe, flourishing lives.
Before 2015 the UK took in about 750 refugees a year from around the world, and the Syrian resettlement scheme increased this to about 5,000 annually. But finding housing in welcoming neighbourhoods is the biggest hurdle.
Yorkshire and the Humber has taken in about one in six of Syrians resettled in England, the most of any region. A Syrian mother of three, Razan, set up an award-winning halloumi business in Huddersfield which distributes to supermarkets all over the UK. Ryad, a Syrian professor, set up a thriving beekeeping project in Kirklees with dozens of volunteers. The City of Sanctuary support network, founded in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, has become a national lifeline for many. It offers conversation clubs, community suppers, clothing donations and free day-trips for refugees and asylum seekers from the rural, conservative North Yorkshire towns of Ripon and Harrogate to urban centres like Hull and Leeds.
However, Yorkshire is also home to some of the most organised pockets of far-right activity in the country. Nick Griffin, former leader of the fascist British National Party, referred to the county as England’s “rose in the crown”. Ten miles from Huddersfield is Birstall, where in 2016 Jo Cox, a Labour MP and outspoken advocate for refugees, was shot dead as she arrived for a residents’ meeting by a man with links to the US neo-Nazi group National Alliance. In nearby towns such as Barnsley and Rotherham far-right groups use local issues to foment discontent.
But like many other multicultural cities in Yorkshire, Huddersfield isn’t beset by racial tension. “Around just this neighbourhood, we have Muslims, South Asian, Pakistani,” says Rashad Bokhari, leader of the Huddersfield Pakistani Alliance, “as well as Eastern Europeans, some Syrian families. And Iraqis and Kurdish people. Everyone tends to get on with everyone, everyone’s supportive of each other.”
Mudassar Ramzan, who runs a fish and chip shop in the town centre, was racially abused by a woman in 2017. “I’ve been here for four and a half years and that’s the first time I’ve ever had anything like that.” The biggest problem, according to both Bokhari and Ramzan, is recent and specific. Funding for local youth services in 2017 was cut severely and youth clubs all over Huddersfield closed. “Since then you’ve got a considerable rise in drug-dealing and knife and gun crime,” says Bokhari. “The shootings and stabbings are getting so frequent now,” says Ramzan.
“There’s nothing for young people to do,” says Jackie Findlay, a community organiser in Almondbury, where the Hijazis tried to make a home. A largely middle-class area, large affluent homes are dotted around a picturesque high street. A social housing development, the Fernside Estate, is significantly more deprived.
Almondbury was almost exclusively white until the refugees arrived in 2016. Before resettlement, Home Office guidance requires rigorous council checks that a neighbourhood is appropriate and safe, although what this entails varies hugely.
“The council needs to look at the local dynamic in that area, look at social media groups, local newspapers, speak to police officers,” says Lou Calvey, Head of Resettlement at Refugee Action. “What’s the conversation like? What dialogue can you build with that community?”
Kirklees Council says that “we always do cohesion checks ahead of taking accommodation on”, to make sure there are “the right support networks in the communities that we’re selecting”. It would not say what this meant in detail. Asked where the Hijazis could have gone to be part of the Almondbury community, the council said: “They are literally a stone’s throw from the town centre, so resources are invested there.” Jihad and Jamal laugh resignedly when asked if the local community was friendly or welcoming.
Jamal worked at the chemist Boots and another pharmacy in Huddersfield outside school and hopes to study medicine. Learning to speak English is one of the biggest barriers for refugees and Jihad went to English lessons as well as orientation events in Huddersfield.
Jamal picked up English quickly and helped the few other local Syrian families translate letters. Kirklees’ cohesion team, in charge of refugees, were reportedly proud of this progress. He was well-liked among Syrian families.
At Almondbury Community School, Jamal was targeted for two years on and off, but escaped attention by playing football. In October last year, the bullying began to happen every day. “Some boys told me, ‘because you’re Muslim, you’re not allowed to play football’,” he says. “They always called me ‘Paki’, they never called me by my name.”
Boys started to push Jamal around, throwing water and eggs at him, and tried to set his hair on fire. The school’s process to deal with bullying was to report it to a teacher and fill in a form. “The teachers reported what happened to the headteacher, and they were saying we will deal with it, but nothing would ever happen,” said Jamal. “And they would always say, ‘just ignore it’.” The Hijazis’ lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, was more succinct when asked about what the school did to stop the bullying: “Two words for you. Fuck all.”
In the last year the UK has seen a 12 per cent rise in incidents of racist abuse in schools deemed serious enough to lead to exclusion of a pupil, the highest jump in a single year for a decade, as shown by Department for Education figures. The scale of casual racist bullying, which does not lead to exclusion, is difficult to measure, after the government removed the obligation for schools to monitor racist bullying, earlier this decade.
Almondbury is strange for having two secondary schools within walking distance of each other. Almondbury Community School (ACS), where Jamal attended, is a struggling, under-funded collection of different primary, junior and secondary schools patched together. The other is King James, which dates back to the 16th century and is a successful “academy” school, the first choice for nearly all the middle-class parents nearby.
ACS has about half the number of pupils it requires and therefore half the money, and is chronically under-funded. This is a familiar story in neighbourhoods around England as the remains of selective grammar schools and academies, free from local authority control, creates a two-tiered state system where resources drain towards one school and leave the other struggling.
One day in October, Jamal had his arm broken. His father reported the injury to police, and the police spoke to three boys about the incident. They then visited Jamal at home and told his father that a number of boys said Jamal was lying, so there wasn’t a case. (A month later, police confirmed that “the evidential test required to prosecute was not met”.) Once the police told them they could not intervene, the family felt powerless to stop an attack every time Jamal and Farah left home in the morning.
While ACS is undoubtedly struggling, it is not a complete outlier, with hundreds of schools similarly under-funded.
A school liaison officer for refugees can be a crucial tool to make initial introductions and smooth out any problems for the new intake. “School liaison is key in not very diverse areas,” says Lou Calvey of Refugee Action, “to have someone who has a trauma background, interpreting in place, communicating with parents. Without it, trust breaks down.” Kirklees did not use a liaison officer.
The video that would go on to be viral showed an incident from late October, with Jamal’s broken arm visible in a cast. Jihad had sent a copy of the video to the council before it went viral.
The Kirklees cohesion team tried to work with the school, although what this entailed is unclear. The school’s leadership, including head teacher Trevor Bowen, refused to let them or local councillors in to help, according to one council employee. “I think it’s just poor [school] management and poor leadership,” said Bernard McGuin, councillor for Almondbury. “They thought they could sort everything out on their own.” When approached for comment the school simply said that “action was taken at the time” of the filmed incident but did not provide any details, citing confidentiality.
The bullying continued for six weeks, including threats from boys to Jamal that he would be stabbed, a warning which led to Jihad installing the cameras around their home. Jamal sent emails and letters to local councillors, the local MP, the Department for Education and the schools regulator, Ofsted, begging for help.
Kirklees council run all their refugee support themselves, whereas most councils contract out the service to specialist organisations like Refugee Action or the Refugee Council. Using specialist charities seems intuitively obvious, though both options can succeed and fail. The support they provide must cover everything from the significant to the mundane, from showing families how to pay taxes or how to use the bus.
The in-house model can be attractive for councils who have had their funding from central government cut by up to 60 per cent. Kirklees had £183m of their public services wiped out this decade. The financial package of between £2,000 and £8,000 a year per resettled refugee can help prop up services like community development or tenant support, that pertain to refugees but can also help existing residents who badly need social support. A refugee family’s support worker is their main source to help them navigate their new neighbourhood, and Kirklees use support workers from housing services for this role.
However, supporting resettled refugees is fundamentally different to supporting local people in need, like drug addicts or abuse victims, says Calvey of Refugee Action. “It’s difficult to see any parallel experience that could cause the level of trauma to people as coming from a war zone,” she said. “It’s crucial when done in-house to acknowledge this difference,” by giving support workers specialist training to deal with refugees.
As the bullying escalated, the Hijazis’ relationship with their support worker broke down. Before the video went viral, they asked to be relocated out of Almondbury, as Jamal’s bullies had threatened to stab him. “You have your passport, why not go back to Syria then?” the family claimed a housing worker told them. “When you’ve been stabbed, then you’ll have a reason to move.”
When councils are failing in their duties to refugees, refugee organisations on contract will let them know and work to find a solution. “This couldn’t happen with Kirklees, who are both the local authority and the resettlement provider,” says Tasnime Akunjee, the Hijazis’ lawyer. When providing refugee support themselves, councils remove this sometimes crucial accountability. “They are not going to report themselves, are they? It’s a clear conflict of interest.”
The council and school provided a united front to the family, and so Jihad’s further appeals to the council to help them with the school led nowhere. “‘We are dealing with it’ they told me over and over,” said Jihad, as nothing changed. Navigating the processes of foreign institutions in an alien country, being passed from one representative to another, led the family to become confused and suspicious. Syrian refugees wanting to move from the neighbourhood they are placed in has not been uncommon since 2015, as both the Home Office and councils find their feet on how best to support and integrate families in neighbourhoods with wildly differing levels of acceptance.
Kirklees Council says that they are in “regular contact” with every refugee family to keep tabs on the success in integrating them into society. “We asked the family to put in a formal complaint and it’s never ever materialised,” said Sarah Mitchell, head of resettlement at the council.
Rashad Bokhari, who was a former chair of the Black and Minority Ethnic Employer Network at the council, says there used to be some excellent council officers who worked to connect different ethnic groups. “Kirklees institutionally had a problem,” he says. “There was an acknowledgement of this problem and we did a lot of work.” Once the austerity measures kicked in, however, these officers moved on due to job insecurity or restructuring, and “all that work was undone”. While far-right sentiment is not rife in Almondbury, some say there is little local pushback when it does surface.
“Kirklees is not a failing council, far from it,” says Bokhari. But moving the Hijazis into an all-white area without support networks in place? “How could the council get it so bloody wrong?”
The video gained nationwide attention when it was shared on Twitter on 28 November, a full month after the incident took place. It was watched tens of millions of times.
Previous social media posts from Bailey, the aggressor on the video, in support of Tommy Robinson and fascist group Britain First, uncovered in the wake of the incident, would not have been a surprise to residents of Almondbury, many of whom knew he came from a far-right family.
The abuser of Mudassar Ramzan, the fish and chip shop owner, in Huddersfield the previous year, was Bailey McLaren’s mother Terri, who was convicted of racist abuse after calling Ramzan a “Paki” while with one of her sons. Bailey’s older brother Reece was convicted of violent disorder after attending an English Defence League and Britain First march in 2015, clashing with a group of British Asian men.
McLaren’s family received thousands of messages and threats, and with Bailey excluded from the school, the family were taken out of town by police to a safe house. Bailey McLaren’s only public statements after the incident were a short hand-written letter to The Sun newspaper and a 15-minute sit-down interview with Tommy Robinson’s YouTube channel, admitting guilt, but saying it had not been racially motivated. Robinson claimed to his millions of followers on social media that Jamal had threatened two girls at the school, claiming proof from messages purportedly sent to him by a parent. The mother of one of these girls replied on his page saying this wasn’t true. (Robinson would later post: “I’ve been absolutely had, how embarrassing man.”) The Hijazis’ lawyer has started defamation proceedings against Robinson on behalf of the family.
With the school inundated with threats and abuse, Robinson’s narrative started to be accepted by a defensive local community. “Young people in Almondbury who were friends with the boy started listening to him [Robinson], he was manipulating them,” said Jackie Findlay, a community organiser in Almondbury. “It made them start questioning the Syrian family.” When Jamal was outside his house, their neighbour, a friend of the McLarens, demanded: “Why have you got my friend into trouble on social media?”
Hate crime is to some extent inevitable with a large resettlement programme, but also impossible to accurately predict where it will occur. “It’s the area of our work that causes us the most distress and we are seeing more and more incidents,” said Refugee Action. The factors that influence the likelihood of hate crime are unsurprisingly multifarious: an area’s demographic, its deprivation, the strength of migrant support networks and far-right networks, access to housing. Using social housing for newly arrived refugees is not encouraged by refugee organisations, especially if there is a long local waiting list, such as the 13,000 waiting for homes in Kirklees.
As a new video, this time of Jamal’s sister being pushed down a small mound spread on Twitter two days later, Jihad wanted to tell his story to the media. The council now saw the family not as residents to be protected but as a PR crisis to be averted. They sent several council officers, alongside police, for a full meeting to the Hijazis’ home in Almondbury, for the first time. The council refused to use an interpreter that spoke the Hijazis’ dialect of Arabic, despite one being present. The family didn’t understand all that was being translated and say, as a result, the council controlled the family’s statements.
Several people present at the meeting gave an account of what happened, starting with the family being told by the council: “We don’t need the media attention, we will sort out this situation.”
“It’s been two years and nothing has been done,” said Jihad. His faith in the council protecting his children was non-existent. “My children have been assaulted.” He wanted to speak to the media.
“How much are the media offering to pay you?” replied a council officer.
Tasnime, their lawyer, wanted to be present by speakerphone, given the importance of the meeting to find a resolution. “The police didn’t have a problem with it, but for some reason the council got spooked by this,” he says. Legal representation isn’t something many Syrian families have access to, and the council refused to allow a meeting with Tasnime participating. “They just ended the meeting and left,” says Jihad.
From that point on, no further help or support from Kirklees was forthcoming. Scared of the backlash at ACS and around Almondbury, Jamal and Farah stopped attending school and didn’t leave the house.
“I told my Dad I didn’t want to go outside anymore. Everyone will know me now,” says Farah. A friend of Jihad’s in another city outside of Yorkshire, helped him find somewhere for the family to live, after a two-month search, and the family left town.
After the incident was condemned by both Theresa May and home secretary Sajid Javid, Ofsted sent in six top-ranking inspectors to conduct an emergency review. Their report found all but one of the functions of the school were rated as “inadequate”, the lowest rating. “Behaviour and welfare” of pupils, was perhaps unexpectedly rated one level above, as “requires improvement”.
While “the majority of pupils say they feel safe”, overall the safeguarding is “ineffective” it ruled. Crucially, the criticism the report makes of the school’s leadership includes an indication they had not taken up opportunities offered by Kirklees’ Prevent counter-extremism team. “I feel there was a lot of work that could have been done with him [Bailey McLaren], if you grabbed him and sat him down and worked with him,” said Rashad Bokhari.
Following the report, new council proposals to close the secondary school (for ages 11 to 16) of Almondbury Community School have been scheduled for 2020. This incident appears to have been the final nail in the coffin for a school operating at half capacity, for which Kirklees had been looking for a solution for years. Now a scramble for school places for 600 children, many of them from low-income families on the Almondbury’s Fernside estate, is set to begin at schools nearby. A large contingent is likely to be squeezed into King James’, which may have the coincidental effect of offering a more equal opportunity for all of Almondbury’s children to receive a quality education.
Meanwhile Jamal, is yet to find a full-time place to take the GCSE exams he was due to take this summer. His younger brother Jalal and sister Farah have both started at new schools. Jamal goes to English language lessons at a college every afternoon, with adults who don’t know him and who are friendly. He practises kick-boxing several times a week at a local gym, and there is a local park they regularly visit, although they say they are still fearful sometimes of encountering people who recognise them.
“Jamal is worried that he’s lost his education,” says Jihad. “But I told him to be patient.”
Just as the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler face down on a beach in Turkey, his lungs filled with water, was seen to define a crisis and spurred the creation of the UK’s resettlement scheme, the sight of Jamal Hijazi being held down on a Yorkshire playground, water streaming down his face, brutally epitomises the hostile environment that waits for some of those who do seek safety and are treated as outsiders.
While a groundswell of support to welcome refugees spread across pockets of the country, deep hostility to the foreigner sits right by its side. Since the Brexit vote of 2016, hate crimes have spiked against Muslims, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from across the world, all conflated as a uniform threat to white Britain.
The Syrian refugee crisis that provoked a European policy crisis from 2015 saw between 1m and 2m people seeking refuge in Europe. If the rise in the earth’s climate is not significantly arrested over the next few decades, conservative estimates suggest 200m people will become migrants globally by 2050.
Before then, the UN’s Refugee Agency is hoping to double the UK’s intake of refugees to 10,000 people per year from 2020, although maintaining the current level is perhaps a more realistic goal. Millions displaced from a range of intractable conflicts in South Sudan, Myanmar and Afghanistan are looking every day for a peaceful community in which to live safely.
The ability for local authorities in Britain to learn the lessons from this first era of large-scale 21st-century resettlement will depend on the ability of councils to keep families safe at a time of budget cuts.
“We lived peacefully in Syria before. Christians and Muslims could co-exist happily,” says Jihad. “I’ve only known racism here.”
- The Lightless Sky: My Journey to Safety as a Child Refugee by Gulwali Passarlay (2016); a story of a child refugee from Afghanistan who travelled across Europe and settled in Bolton, a hub for asylum-seekers and refugees near Manchester, North West England.
- Report from the chief inspector of borders and immigration on the success and faults of VPRS in 2018.
- A Different Class: How autocrats get away with posing as authentocrats by Joe Kennedy in The Baffler; a discussion of the manufacturing of working-class authenticity to advance a far-right agenda, from Tommy Robinson to Steve Bannon.