x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Students face 'terrible violence'

Attacks on Indians in Australia are well documented, but there have been many assaults on Saudis and other Middle Easterners.

Ibrahim Abu Nadi says police and universities have
Ibrahim Abu Nadi says police and universities have "acted positively" in handling the assaults.

SYDNEY // As Australia grapples with embarrassing attacks on young Indians, students from the Middle East have also been subjected to unprovoked violence and bigotry. There have been dozens of assaults in Melbourne and Sydney, mostly on Indian expatriates, and the muggings and beatings have spread to smaller regional centres, where other nationalities have been targeted in a suspected wave of racially motivated crimes.

At Newcastle University in New South Wales, undergraduates from Saudi Arabia have been "exposed to terrible violence", according to Veronica Meneses, a welfare and education officer at the student association, who accused the authorities of not doing enough to help. "Saudi students have been having a hard time especially in Newcastle, which everybody knows is one of the most Anglo-Saxon cities in Australia. Having an influx of Saudis is a bit of a cultural shock for the locals," Ms Meneses said.

Hani, who preferred not to divulge his surname, arrived from Saudi Arabia to study medicine last year. He was set upon by a gang of teenagers in Newcastle, but was saved from serious injury by a group of friends who came to his rescue. "There is some attacking on the campus and the suburbs around the university and that has put too much pressure on the students," said Hani, who conceded that he might leave Australia if the situation didn't improve. "I am doing martial arts so I can defend myself but lots of students can't do anything when people attack them."

Knives and baseball bats have been used in street robberies, while one international student has also been shot at. Across Australia, the police and various university authorities have stressed that the security and well-being of visiting students is a priority. While the official view is that the majority of attacks were opportunistic acts carried out on the vulnerable, there is an admission that some were hate crimes perpetrated by racists.

Ibrahim Abu Nadi, president of the Saudi Club in the Gold Coast in Queensland, said the police and universities had "acted positively" when dealing with assaults on young foreigners. Mr Nadi, from Jeddah, who is working on a PhD in electronic government, insisted that while the attacks on Middle Eastern students on the Gold Coast south of Brisbane were"rare, they were nevertheless unsettling. "A married woman, she was riding on the bus from the university to home at 12 o'clock and there were two people who were drunk and they wanted to remove her hijab and they were saying bad things about her," he said.

"There was also a guy who had just arrived from Saudi. I don't know why he was attacked, maybe because of his looks. It was 11am and he was mugged by two big guys, who came to him and stole his money. Amazingly enough, they came back to him and gave back the money. I guess they felt sad for him or something." A steady flow of Saudis, who have found entry into Australia easier than the United States after the September 11 attacks, has helped fuel a boom in the country's multibillion-dollar higher education industry. In 2004, Australia was the world's fifth most popular destination for overseas students and today about 450,000 are enrolled at universities and colleges across the continent.

Foreigners are a vital source of revenue and allow institutions to provide a diverse range of courses, but Nigel Palmer, national president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, believes they have been taken advantage of by a system that simply wants their money and is not willing to offer them safety and support in return. "Universities around the world have embraced the growth of the international education market as, pretty much, free money," Mr Palmer said. "They have been keen to welcome international enrolments and international fees but haven't felt compelled to really make an investment in support of services for those students."

As a result, many visitors have been left to fend for themselves in a strange, lonely place, far from home. "International students are not connected to the community - not even to the domestic student community. Isolation, discrimination and racism are issues," Ms Meneses said. pmercer@thenational.ae