SUN 17 - 11 - 2019
Jan 30, 2019
The Daily Star
Local initiatives help fight bullying in Egypt’s schools
Antonia Williams-Annunziata| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The same bullying at school that drove Mustapha Ashraf’s best friend to commit suicide would also in later years push him to try and end his life. Instead, refusing to be a victim, Ashraf founded Advice Seekers, an organization that runs anti-bullying programs in schools around Egypt.
Ashraf vows to keep his and others’ stories as the foundation behind his campaign.
The bullying started for Ashraf when he was 8 years old. He said his teachers made fun of him because his English was better than his Arabic.
“I got insecure, I couldn’t speak to anyone,” he told The Daily Star from Cairo. He found comfort in a friendship with fellow student Jasmine, who was also a victim of bullying. “She was the only one that talked to me.”
Jasmine’s family relocated later that year. “We called each other every few days,” he said.
Then one day his calls went unanswered. His father broke the news that the bullying Jasmine had faced drove her to cut her wrists.
“She had killed herself while her dad was in the other room,” Ashraf said. He felt she didn’t fully open up to him about the extent of the harassment, and that’s something he hopes to change for other bullying victims in Egypt.
Such stories are not uncommon.
According to the U.N. children’s agency, 70 percent of students in Egypt aged 13-15 are being bullied at school.
In late November, local media reported that 18-year-old Iman Saleh had committed suicide by throwing herself out of the fourth-story window of her institute in Alexandria.
She had complained to a friend about the pressures of bullying.
A few days later, Ahram Online news agency reported that Nile Delta prosecutors had detained a teacher over allegedly bullying a student, with the professor reportedly having made fun of the student because of the color of her skin.
Egypt has taken steps to address bullying in schools, launching a monthlong anti-bullying campaign in September in cooperation with UNICEF. But talking about mental health is widely regarded as a taboo, so some schools tend to shy away from open discussions.
At the start of this year, the psychology department at the American University in Cairo published an assessment of perceptions of bullying among teachers from six private schools in Egypt.
The findings showed that most had misunderstood the definition and the criteria for bullying.
While progress is being made on a large scale, smaller efforts still lie in the hands of individuals like Ashraf. Hoping to help other victims, he decided to set up Advice Seekers in 2014, initially just as an online advice center.
The team grew to 25-strong, with volunteers on call 24 hours a day.
Ashraf said the team was responding to around 500 calls and messages a day.
Advice Seekers has since grown and now runs on-site initiatives, with Ashraf visiting 95 schools around Egypt last year. His seminars and lectures focus on bullying and the toll it takes, and he frequently finds himself navigating sensitive but important subjects. Each seminar is tailored according to class year for children aged 8-18.
“All you have to do is to talk with their heart and soul,” he said, adding that sharing his personal experience helps students connect with his program. “At times we get students who stand up [in lecture halls] and confess to being a victim of bullying too.”
After refusing several prestigious university offers in the U.S. and U.K., Ashraf is adamant that his future is in Egypt. He has decided to put his higher education on hold for now so that he can continue to dedicate his time to helping others.
“Every school needs someone who cares,” he said. “I can’t leave. I’ve been doing that for all my life.”
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