x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dubai students battle to end blight of bullying

A group of students at the Canadian University in Dubai have spoken out against bullying.

Students render a play during the anti-bullying campaign at their campus Canadian University of Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Students render a play during the anti-bullying campaign at their campus Canadian University of Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

DUBAI // Isabelle Taleb was teased because she had trouble speaking Arabic. Hibo Bile was bullied because of her race. And for Khalid Abdulla Saleh, physical confrontations were common on the playground, where older boys ganged up on smaller ones.

"When any of our friends would like to get something to eat, they would push him around just so they could eat first," remembered Mr Saleh, a 24-year-old Emirati.

Although they grew up in different countries, a group of students at the Canadian University of Dubai recently realised they had something disturbing in common - they had all witnessed or experienced bullying.

"I asked them to write a speech about something they really cared about and a lot of them talked about bullying," said Dr Fran Apprich, chair of the university's bachelor's degree in communication.

Over the past two months, more than 100 of her students worked together to create an anti-bullying campaign. Their efforts culminated in a variety show on Wednesday featuring speeches, songs, a panel discussion, a skit and a custom-made video.

"All of us had personal experiences with the topic," said Ms Bile, 20, a communications student.

Bullying hit the headlines in the UAE in April when a playground fight in Abu Dhabi left 11-year-old Lujain Hussein with a brain haemorrhage. Her family later discovered she had been bullied.

While the severity of the incident was unusual - Lujain was in hospital for three weeks - bullying is not.

A 2010 World Health Organisation survey of pupils in the Emirates found that more than 22 per cent had been bullied in the previous month, while nearly half said they had been in a physical fight with another student in the previous year.

Wail Al Hunaidi, an Abu Dhabi father who runs an anti-bullying campaign, said awareness of the problem was low in the Arab world.

"Sometimes people don't like to talk if they have a story, if somebody bullied them," said Mr Al Hunaidi, 36, a Jordanian who grew up in the UAE. "They feel like it's shameful. But we're trying to let them understand, you need to talk - this is the solution."

Ms Taleb, from Australia, moved to the UAE when she was 6. She said she was an easy target for children at her school in Sharjah because she was not fluent in Arabic.

"I think it happens a lot in this country," said Ms Taleb, 18, a spectator at the variety show. "When you are a different nationality or you don't speak the language."

Ms Bile was bullied in Canada because she was one of the few black children in her area.

"I became more confident when I went to high school and I saw people who were bullied but never really stood up for themselves," she said. "So I sort of became a defender."

Mr Saleh, a human-resources major, gave a speech about standing up for another boy who was bullied at his school in Dubai.

"We got beat up at the end," he said, to laughter from the audience. "But it's OK."

Eventually things started to change, Mr Saleh said. The bullies became less popular.

"They started to understand that what they were doing was wrong," he said.

Bullying has now spread from the schoolyard to the internet.

Reem Mobayed said that while she was never bullied, her younger sister was. Classmates doctored a photograph of her and posted it on Facebook.

"They started calling her names all over the internet," said Ms Mobayed, 19, a Syrian who grew up in Dubai. "She was really devastated."

To view the students' video, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II_FfbVqyZY

vnereim@thenational.ae