WHEN bigotry confronted Australian Islamic College students in Perth, the community rallied to turn the incident around.
International humanitarian Rabia Siddique was shocked when she heard about the experience of Kewdale students at a careers expo in the city.
“The news article I read via social media told of a very sad situation where some students from the college were asked to move on when they were sitting and eating their lunch,” Ms Siddique said.
“It was reported that they were asked to move on because they made some other people who were attending the expo and were working at the expo uncomfortable… This happened not long after the Manchester attacks in the UK.
“I immediately put myself in the place of those students and thought about how humiliated they must have felt.
“I went online and had a look at all the reactions. What was encouraging was this overwhelming response of disappointment and people saying ‘that’s not our Australia’ and feeling sorry for the children.”
The Careers, The Future, and Other Life Choices expo was born after Ms Siddique reached out to the college, with the South Perth local putting out a request on social media for volunteer speakers to deliver their wisdom in TED-style presentations.
She said she was overwhelmed with the response, gathering speakers from a variety of industries and backgrounds.
“What started as a seed, as an idea about turning something negative into a positive and doing something for the kids that would help them feel not only a sense of belonging but that they had the world at their feet and had options and choices, turned into something much more,” Ms Siddique said.
Tooba Nabeel (16) said the day showed her it was okay to take time to figure things out.
“It helped me realise that our subjects, all our decisions right now, our future life isn’t going to be dependent on them. We can always change, we can always go for what we want to do,” she said.
Benaldy Merdi (16) said the speakers were informative and funny, and expanded his view of possible occupations.
“Before the expo, I only had one career path in my mind, engineering or something. But after the career expo it opened my mind to a few more options. Maybe another field of science, like chemistry or medicine,” he said.
The impact of the event was clear to college deputy principal Rana al-Baghdadi.
“To see that others made time for the students shows them that they too are important, and what they perhaps read in terms of negative comments is not exactly everyone’s opinion,” Ms al-Baghdadi said.
“You can see how speaking out brings positivity back and how much support you can get. They saw that. They felt that. That will hopefully teach them that that happened to us and so much positivity came from it, and I hope they do that as well.”
Ms Siddique said students who had been at the Perth careers expo came up to her afterwards and said they would not have changed a thing.
“That made me quite emotional. Because they said if that hadn’t happened, we would not have had today and not met everybody who showed us so much love,” she said.
Ms al-Baghdadi said negative comments online were a serious issue for students.
“This is something we have to start taking very seriously, because it’s happening. If it impacts me and I’m an adult, and I understand that this is not reality, it’s a few people, it’s isolated and it’s not the whole of Australia, the students won’t see it that way. From our part, we’ve discovered we need to do more education about this,” she said.
“We can’t just put it aside, and be so busy with everything else we’re doing, because we have to train them when they go out to feel very confident. That they are Australian.”
Ms Siddique said the topic was raised at Careers, The Future and Other Life Choices, along with the power of mobilising people on social media for good.
“We all have a choice, and we all can use our voice to educate and raise awareness, which is the only way we’re going to counter the ignorance and the prejudice,” she said.
“You see these negative situations and see it as an opportunity not as something that will define or victimise them, but as an opportunity to educate, to raise awareness, to use their stories and voice to show what most of us see as common sense. You, me, regardless of our religion, our culture, our colour, we’re all the same.
“How can we ask our children to take a stand and speak up if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves? If we’re not prepared to model the behaviour that we want them to emulate in their lives?”