CANADA — Following reports that 39-year-old Syrian refugee Soleiman Hajj Soleiman sexually assaulted six teenagers at a mall waterpark, a barrage of criticism from anti-immigration warriors over concerns with how the media relayed the story has arisen.
On Wednesday, Edmonton, Alberta, police announced charges against the Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada in January 2016, stating that the man faces six counts of sexual assault and six counts of sexual interference.
Over the 24-hour period after the story broke and quickly spread across the internet, many organizations who work with refugees received a large number of phone calls and texts, with some people desiring to end the refugee program altogether, 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 recently received a Twitter message from a white supremacist group asking them to confirm whether or not a photo included in the message tweet was that of the accused.
“It may be just to scare us or to unnerve people. But around my office, that’s what’s happening. People are starting to get really nervous, and the [English] language students are starting to get really nervous,” said Ambtman.
“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,” Ambtman continued. “It’s really spiraling into a really ugly place.”
According to CBC News, Mohamed Huque, executive director of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association, said that he is concerned that revealing the defendant’s refugee status will unfairly vilify an entire community.
Huque, whose organization helped resettle 250 Syrian refugees last year, said, “It’s going to inflame a segment of our population who already harbor a bias, a discrimination or unfair views towards newcomers.”
“The insertion of two words — Syrian refugee — completely changed the dimension of the story,” he said. “What was initially a local crime story became a wider discussion about screening practices, immigration levels. It just turned into an entirely different debate.”
Huque believes that the suspect’s immigration status is not relevant to the crime, and that media should have kept this detail out of its coverage.
“If this person was Caucasian, that wouldn’t have been identified in any way, because it’s not relevant to the story. And his immigration status certainly shouldn’t be. Responsible journalists should be aware of the political climate, 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,” Huque said.
David Tait, a professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who has taught ethics courses at the journalism school, said, “Journalists have to, sort of, go and look at a situation not from the standpoint of, ‘Is there public appetite for this information? Do people want to know it?’ but, ‘Is that detail relevant at this stage to this story?'”
Tait said in this case, he would have questioned whether details about the accused’s background were relevant while reporting immediately after the arrest was made.
“My question would be, would we have run additional background details about this person if they were a gay man? A gun owner? If they were Jewish? If they were a fundamentalist Christian? If they were a recent arrival from the United States? If they were any number of other identifiers?”
According to Ambtman, Soleiman arrived in Canada with his wife and six children, aged one to 13 years. The family was assisted by the Mennonite Centre.
Ambtman said that the justice system will determine the facts of the case and if a crime has been committed, and then will punish the responsible party.
“To make this about immigration is just absurd. What has happened is there has been a sexual assault at West Edmonton Mall; and six girls are going to be traumatized, likely, for the rest of their lives because of a crime that somebody perpetrated on them. To me, that’s the concern.”
H/T: CBC News
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