A firestorm of reaction is blazing in Alberta, Canada, following reports that a man accused of sexually assaulting six Edmonton teenaged girls was a Syrian refugee.
Anti-immigration sentiments have been fueled, and the media has been criticized for their reporting on the crimes.
“The insertion of two words—Syrian refugee—completely changed the dimension of the story,” said Mohamed Hugue, executive director of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association that helped settle 250 Syrian refugees last year.
“What was initially a local crime story became a wider discussion about screening practices, immigration levels,” Hugue said. “It just turned into an entirely different debate.”
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Charges of six counts of sexual assault and six counts of sexual interference were filed against Soleiman Hajj Soleiman, 39, who was arrested Saturday after six teenaged girls under the age of 16 reported to police that they were inappropriately touched while swimming at the West Edmonton Mall waterpark. After the charges were announced, one more victim and one additional witness came forward, according to police spokesperson Scott Pattison.
Since the news became public, Edmonton refugee assistance organizations have been inundated with calls and texts—some from people insisting on the discontinuation of the refugee program, and others from refugees, themselves, apologizing on behalf of their community.
Erick Ambtman, executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, said his organization received a message on Twitter from a white supremacist group seeking to verify the identity of the man accused of the crimes.
“It may be just to scare us or to unnerve people,” Ambtman said. “But around my office, that’s what’s happening. People are starting to get really nervous. And the Syrian students are apologizing for somebody who they don’t even know because he’s got the same country of origin as they do. It’s really spiraling into a really ugly place.”
The man charged in the case was a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada in January 2016, a fact that was reported Wednesday by numerous news outlets and shared widely on social media. After that, “It just turned into an entirely different debate,” Hugue said. He also claimed that Soleiman’s refugee status was not relevant to the story. “It’s going to inflame a segment of our population who already harbor a bias, a discrimination, or unfair views towards newcomers.”
Huque argues that journalists had a duty to keep the details of Soleiman’s refugee status out of their coverage and that the media is inconsistent when reporting on the racial backgrounds of suspects.
“Responsible journalists should be aware of the political climate,” Hugue said. “So when we use that kind of language or when we ascribe a community to an individual, we need to be wary of the implications.”
H/T: CBC News
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