When boxer Fes Batista saw the video of a teenage Syrian refugee being taunted and pushed to the ground at a school in northern England as other students looked on, it brought back a flood of painful memories.
The 28-year-old, whose real name is Mohammed Faisal but is known by his nickname, knows only too well the impact bullying can have. He said he came “within millimeters” of taking his own life after being taunted over his Asian background while at college.
The fact that the Syrian boy, identified by his family’s lawyer only as Jamal, was bullied in Batista’s own West Yorkshire hometown of Huddersfield made the video more personal to him. It also impelled Batista to offer any help he could.
“I was absolutely devastated for him and it made me absolutely determined to reach out to him at all costs,” he said.
Batista, who is trained and managed by American boxing legend Roy Jones Jr., splits his time between Huddersfield, a multicultural town northeast of Manchester, and Pensacola, Florida. He aspires to a world championship title and is living life to the fullest.
But things could have been very different. He never suffered racist abuse growing up in Huddersfield, he said, but when he went to university in another, less diverse town in northern England his experience of racially motivated bullying was horrific.
“They openly called me a terrorist, openly threw stuff at me, one girl spat in my face — I remember that,” he said. “I was boxing at the time — it doesn’t matter how tough you are, these things crush you from the inside. You can’t clench your fist and say ‘I’m going to fight you’ — it’s something way more powerful.”
Batista credits hearing a Lady Gaga song as he was preparing to take his own life with restoring his will to live. Now, he speaks in local schools against bullying and works with top-flight soccer club Huddersfield Town to spread an inclusive message.
The boxer hopes that hearing how he turned his life around and realized his dream of becoming a professional boxer will help Jamal and other young people like him. He’s reached out to Jamal’s family and hopes he may get to offer support in person.
“I want to send that message to him and to other people who are suffering bullying and are rock bottom,” he said. “I can feel the pain he felt. These people most likely haven’t been there. I’ve physically been where he’s been.”
Outrage and support
The incident from October at Almondbury Community School has shocked people in Huddersfield and prompted concern that an undercurrent of racism might be rearing its head in the community.
But it has also led to a surge of community support for the 15-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister, who was also bullied at the school, according to the family’s lawyer, London-based Mohammed Akunjee.
Supporters rallied outside the school on Thursday and a GoFundMe page set up to help the family had received more than £155,000 (about $197,000) in donations by Saturday, surpassing its target.
“Jamal and his family are doing well,” Mohammed Tahir, the founder of the GoFundMe account said Saturday on Twitter. “I have passed along your heartfelt messages to them and they are very touched by your kind words and welcoming approach.”
Speaking at the G20 summit in Argentina, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said what the boy had gone through was “absolutely terrible” but that the public response shows that the British are a “welcoming people.”
The headteacher of Almondbury Community School, Trevor Bowen, said in a statement Friday that the school, which describes itself on its website as “inclusive,” was treating the matter with the “utmost seriousness” and that students’ safety was paramount.
“We can confirm that, contrary to statements you may have seen, the school has been working with the police and the local authority for several weeks in relation to the recent incidents,” he said. “Be assured that any issues are dealt with quickly. We do not tolerate unacceptable behaviour of any sort in our school.”
West Yorkshire Police say a 16-year-old male suspect has been interviewed about the October 25 incident and will appear in a youth court.
Kirklees Council, the local authority which covers Huddersfield, called the alleged bullying incidents “very serious matters” and that it was working closely with the school and police. “Our shared priority is the safety and welfare of all students,” a spokesman said.
Impact on the boy’s family
Jamal and his family, who are among a number of Syrian refugees in Huddersfield, are said to be considering using the donated funds to move elsewhere in Britain.
They had fled from Homs in war-torn Syria to Lebanon, said Akunjee, before being settled in Huddersfield under a UN program in 2016.
That’s when Sleman Shwaish, a Syrian refugee who himself came to Britain in 2012, first got to know the family, as he acted as an interpreter for them. Since then, the relationship has developed into friendship, said Shwaish, who now works as a refugee service coordinator.
The alleged incidents at the school and subsequent furor have had a big impact, he told CNN. “I cannot describe how the family are feeling now, they cannot think straight. It’s so difficult to deal with,” he said.
The boy told Shwaish he couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. “He would say sometimes, ‘I was just having a nightmare and I cried and I didn’t want to show my dad I’m crying,” said Shwaish.
The boy and his father made a brief appearance as a small group of supporters gathered outside the school on Thursday.
“Thanks for everything,” the teenager told them as he left. CNN reached out to the boy’s family but they declined to be interviewed.
Shwaish’s own experience in Huddersfield has been very positive, he said. He suffered racial abuse in other British towns when he first arrived as a refugee from northeastern Syria, including having eggs thrown at his window, but that changed when he came to Huddersfield.
“For me it was the best of places in the UK,” he said, adding that he chose it because of its reputation as a multicultural town with a good university.
“Since the day I arrived in Huddersfield, I’ve been so welcome. A lot of people showed me support, they helped me with so many things I needed.”
Another Syrian refugee in the town, Reda Alsous, told CNN of receiving a warm welcome after arriving in Huddersfield from Damascus nearly five years ago. He now works for Amazon and in his sister’s cheese factory while continuing his studies.
“Since I came here I lived with my family in an area full of English people called Crosland Moor and have lots of English and international friends,” he said.
A diverse community
Huddersfield, which lies between Leeds and Manchester, is the largest urban area in the Kirklees borough. Grand Victorian architecture in the town center signals the area’s history as a major manufacturing center, particularly for textiles.
That history and the town’s bustling university have contributed to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the area. As of January 2017, more than a quarter of schoolchildren across Kirklees were of Asian or British Asian origin.
Waseem Riaz, of the Kirklees Faith Network, an independent group working for community cohesion, said the overall picture of race and faith relations in Kirklees today is very good compared with past decades, with race “not really an issue” for children.
“A lot of schools have done a lot of work over the last 15 or 20 years to break down those barriers,” he said. “We’ve moved a long way from the 1960s and 1970s, where if you were a black or Asian person walking on the street you had to be very careful that someone didn’t give you a punch in the face.”
But he does fear that social media is helping to promote far-right views which could tap into some roots of prejudice.
“The far-right have been active in Kirklees for the past 50 years under different political names,” he said. “Now they are using social media and their rhetoric obviously appeals to a tiny minority. But by and large, the picture is very positive.”
Huddersfield has also been impacted by recent high-profile trials involving men of Asian origin grooming vulnerable white girls for sex, which has led to an unfortunate focus by national media on community division, Riaz said.
Recent figures from West Yorkshire Police show a significant rise in racially motivated crimes. Riaz, who sits on a panel that studies racial incidents in Kirklees, believes — like the police — that that is largely because of greater awareness are more people being willing to report incidents.
But he is also concerned that the pressure on schools to meet tough literacy and numeracy standards could mean school leadership teams have less time to focus on community cohesion.
Meanwhile, Batista is confident that his beloved hometown will weather this latest storm. And he’ll carry on doing all he can to promote inclusiveness and kindness in schools.
“Huddersfield is a very tight community. People look after each other in Huddersfield,” he said.