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The video of the Syrian refugee being violently assaulted by a bully at a school in Huddersfield was chilling as it circulated social media last week.
Outrage, anguish and the need to do something permeated the conversations of those who had seen the video and were left too distressed. There was something harrowing and unsettling, not just about the violent sadism of the bully who slammed the refugee to the ground and then poured water into his mouth, but the passive acceptance of the refugee to his fate, as if he had foreseen this as inevitable and had embraced it.
Later we would learn that this was not an isolated incident but the culmination of systematic bullying of the Syrian refugee, known as Jamal. In the same school, his sister had also been bullied. Jamal cried himself to sleep every night, hoping for a reprieve from his torment. Someone fled war, tyranny and oppression only to encounter a nightmare of a kind easier to relate to here.
The general social consensus was that this was deeply wrong, a sad reflection on the state of affairs in a country focused on an insular retreat from the rest of the world. People were stirred out of compassion to raise over a £100k for Jamal and his family, which suggests that empathy and generosity towards refugees is not yet lost to the right-wing rhetoric that those fleeing persecution and war can never find a home in Britain.
But there is a wider story to be conveyed here which is that political discourse and the nature of its language has prompted a rise in racism and stoked generally harsher attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers from countries like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and others. The debate around the EU Referendum in 2016 presented remaining in the European Union as some sort of process of melting away the walls that kept out the uncultured hordes, whoever they were seen to be. They could have been a Syrian refugee or a Romanian migrant. Racism is interchangeable and generous in…