Syrian family in Calgary mourning loss of 9-year-old daughter who died by suicide
Agencies that work with children who are newcomers to Canada are meeting next week to discuss whether more could have been done to prevent the death of a nine-year-old Syrian refugee girl who died by suicide.
Aref Alshteiwi and his wife Nasra Abdulrahman’s hopes for a better life in Canada were shattered after the death of their daughter, Amal. Alshteiwi came home on March 6 to find her body in her bedroom.
They are now a family of eight and are still dealing with the sting and shock of the tragedy, which Amal’s parents say came as a result of bullying their daughter suffered at her Calgary school.
The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) is planning to hold a news conference on Monday to address the student’s death. It will be the board’s first time speaking publicly since Global News broke the story last week.
WATCH: A nine-year-old Syrian refugee is being mourned by her family after taking her own life last month.
The family came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees three years ago, fleeing war in Syria where they describe bombs being dropped over their home.
But the peace they found in Canada has now being replaced with more trauma. The family said Amal would come home from school distraught.
“They were bullying her all the time there, telling her, ‘You are ugly, you are not beautiful,’” Alshteiwi said through a translator.
WATCH: While instances are rare, mental health advocates say this is not the first time someone so young has died by suicide. Jayme Doll has more on the conversations surrounding silence and stigma after a Calgary girl died in March.
“Two weeks before she moved from that school to another school, kids came to her and said, ‘Even if you move to another school they are not going to love you. The kids or the teacher. Wherever you go, you better just go and kill yourself,’” Abdulrahman said, also talking through a translator.
Police attended the home on the day Amal died but said there wasn’t enough evidence to launch a criminal investigation into the bullying allegations.
The couple said it raised concerns with the Calgary school their daughter attended but Amal never got the help she needed.
In a statement emailed to Global News, the CBE said it “found there was no indication of bullying nor was any concern raised to the school,” following an investigation.
“The area office has worked closely with the school principal to gather information from teachers, staff and students to try to understand if there were concerns or issues,” the CBE said.
WATCH: Death of 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl sparks debate on mental health for newcomers
The tragic situation is weighing heavy on the hearts and minds of those who are dedicated to helping newcomers adjust.
“I can’t even imagine the tragedy they felt,” said Immigrant Services Calgary CEO Hyder Hassan. “The first thing — their refugee journey to a new country and then to have this happen, I don’t even have words to describe it.”
There are hundreds of programs available to newcomers in Calgary, including many for children. But only about half of those who are eligible access them or even know they exist, according to a 2017 survey funded by the federal government.
Amal’s parents didn’t reach out to any organization for newcomers to get help for their daughter. Hassan said Immigrant Services Calgary is trying to figure out why this little girl fell through the cracks.
“This hits home for us,” Hassan said. “This is the reason we are doing this work. This is the reason why 141 of our employees get up every day and come to our agencies. Our colleagues in the sector are passionate about our work because we want to avoid these situations. Once we get all the facts, we can look and see what we can do to improve this.”
It’s a concern echoed by Sam Nammoura, who works closely with new Syrian Calgarians. He said it is not uncommon for children to complain about being bullied, but never imagined it would lead to one taking her own life.
He said immigrant children face greater barriers when it comes to fitting in due to things like language barriers and adjusting to a new culture.
“We feel, as a community, in a way, responsible for what happened here,” Nammoura said. “Especially [if] they don’t know how to deal with the system, they don’t know they can go to school [and] file a complaint.”
The family is receiving counselling once a week and holding on to every memory of their sweet Amal.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
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