Friday, November 30, 2012
By Michael Purvis
What has stuck with Monira Farah most since she was accosted two weeks ago is not the physical act of being doused with water, though that was traumatic enough.
Farah said it was the apparent racial motive behind the attack that has most unsettled her.
“I felt weird, like I didn't belong and this wasn't my home,” said the 25-year-old Algoma University student.
Farah, who is black, said she was out for a stroll on Russ Ramsay Way, walking toward the waterfront, when a dark four-door car headed toward her slowed down. Someone shouted 'Go back to your own country,' and dumped what seemed to Farah like a bucket full of water on her.
Farah grew up in Canada, having come here from Somalia when she was two years old. She said she has never known any other country than this one, which makes her attacker's words all the more hurtful.
“They're telling me to go back to your 'own country,'” she said.
Police are investigating the brazen Nov. 18 incident as a hate-motivated assault. Investigators have talked to witnesses and looked at surveillance footage from that night, but so far no arrests have been made and police say they have no suspects yet.
Upset and drenched, Farah said she ran to a nearby Tim Hortons immediately after and phoned a friend who arranged a ride to the police station to report what happened.
The incident has left Farah shaken, and feeling like she would be safer back home among a more diverse population.
“I've never encountered this in Toronto,” said Farah.
The incident has sparked unease among visible minorities at Algoma U. and other students have since come forward with other reports of racism and discrimination. The Algoma University Students Union has organized a town hall meeting at the school on Friday in a bid to examine the depth of the issue.
Richard Myers, the school's president, said he thinks what Farah experienced was “an awful thing,” and he said the school is aware of other racially-based harassment this school year, including threats, though none involving an assault like the one that happened two weeks ago.
“The fact that it's one of a few incidents that have occurred in the last couple of months indicates that it's not something that we would ignore as an isolated incident that is unlikely to be repeated,” said Myers.
Algoma University's student body includes nearly 17% international students and Myers said administrators have met with student leaders about the attack on Farah and have encouraged them to try to gather more information about the kind of discrimination students are facing. He said a number of ways to address the recent incidents have been suggested and the school is looking at them.
Myers said he saw similar behaviour in Saint John when the University of New Brunswick campus there first began to bring in large numbers of international students. He said the community there made it clear that kind of behaviour was unacceptable, and he said it is important for the Sault to do the same.
“It's gratifying that so many people in the community have expressed their disgust at this, but I think what we need to do is make sure this message is clearly heard by everybody in the community, because it appears we've got a few people in the community who think this is all just fine,” said Myers.
Farah, who lives in the university's downtown Windsor Park residence, was attacked just steps from her home. She said she doesn't think it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She said she believes whoever assaulted her was out to find a visible minority and deliberately targeted her because of the colour of her skin.
“They were driving downtown. They know there are international students who live there, people of colour,” Farah said.
She said she has had racial slurs hurled at her before while walking off-campus, since transferring to Algoma U. in August from George Brown College.
Lydia Yamane came from Toronto to study at Algoma U. around the same time as Farah. Yamane said she too has been the subject of racial harassment.
She said shortly after the pair came to the Sault someone hurled ice at them. She said other students have told her of similar incidents, some involving eggs being thrown from vehicles.
She said it seems like the work of drunken teenagers, and much of it goes unreported, though she finds the fact that Farah was physically assaulted worrying.
“How long do they wait until something crazy happens?” said Yamane.
Farah said this recent incident, and the others she has encountered since moving to the Sault in August weren't what she was expecting. She said she avoids going out alone now and makes sure to text a friend to let them know where she is going.
“I was expecting hospitality, kindness. I was expecting safety, and I don't feel safe anymore,” said Farah.