'Why don't you go back home?': Rivalry fuels racism at high school football game
A recent high school football game in Moncton took an ugly turn when Syrian students became the targets of racial slurs and aggressive behaviour in the stands.
The game on Friday, Sept. 29, at Rocky Stone Field between Moncton and Riverview high schools got off on the wrong foot for fans, according to Grade 12 student Mhairi Agnew.
She said Moncton High students arrived to find Riverview fans on the side of the bleachers where Moncton traditionally sits.
"We kind of told them to move and they didn't … so we sat in the middle of their whole group of students and it kind of started off a cheer war of who can be loudest and prove their school spirit, and that kind of started the whole rivalry of the evening."
Grade 11 student Moiad Alhamoud arrived at the game with his brother and four of his friends, looking forward to cheering for Moncton High.
"We all from Syria and we came to support the boys from Moncton High. I'm so excited and it's so fun and we trying to be so loud to support the boys."
'That made me feel so sad'
The Syrian refugees found seats between the two groups of fans but Alhamoud said people behind them quickly became abusive.
"We was standing and they started to say, 'Sit down, sit down,' and we can't. We can't sit because all of the students are standing and if we sit we aren't going to be able to watch the game, and I was telling them that and they was starting to push on me from my back and trying to pull on my pants."
Alhamoud said as the evening went on, the group behind them got louder and started swearing and throwing water bottles and coins at them. He soon regretted bringing his younger brother to the game.
"I was telling them, 'Don't push me, don't do that,' but they was laughing... my brother was talking to me, asking me, 'What's happening,' because he don't understand everything so I was answering to him and they was laughing so hard and making fun about our language."
Alhamoud said they told his brother his English was so bad he shouldn't ever speak it, and then they went further.
"They was like, 'Where did you came from? You shouldn't be here. Just leave.' They was yelling... they wanted us to leave the game and leave Canada."
Students begin new cheer: 'Don't be racist'
Alhamoud said the group behind them wasn't the only group of fans who were yelling and swearing at them. There was a second group in the corner.
He tried to calm the situation down by looking up at them and making the shape of a heart with his hands, but said they returned his hand gesture with their middle fingers.
"That made me feel so sad," Alhamoud said. "They was like really laughing at us and making fun about us and that pissed me off. I was really mad."
Agnew said many Moncton High students noticed what was going on and at first she was "baffled" by what she was witnessing.
"I heard, 'Go back to Syria, go back to where you came from, go home,'" Agnew said.
"It was so heartbreaking and devastating. I was disgusted and I was so angry that I became really upset and I was on the brink of tears."
Agnew and her classmates alerted their teachers about what was happening and they moved to sit with Alhamoud and the other Syrian students. Then, Agnew said, the students got another idea.
"The news came down that people were being racist and the people that were starting the cheers … they didn't like that," she said.
"We started the cheer down at the bottom and it slowly made its way up ... and it was just everyone from Moncton High just yelling as loud as we could, 'Don't be racist!' Like chanting it and it was pretty powerful."
Alhamoud heard the chant rising in the stands just as he, his brother and friends had decided to leave, worried a fight was going to break out.
"When we decided to leave I looked behind me and I saw everyone from Moncton High School — they was yelling, 'Don't be racist,' and they was all saying sorry to us and some people was hugging us," he said.
"I was really, really happy and I started to laugh, I started to smile. I just focused on the people who was really good to me."
'We love Canadian people'
Alhamoud said this is not the first time he has heard racist comments from other students. He attended a different high school in Moncton last year and said he was asked by some classmates if he was a terrorist.
"Some people think we came from the war and we were like from ISIS... we came here because we don't want to fight anyone or kill anyone. We came here to be safe and live our life," he said.
Alhamoud said that after talking to those classmates he realized that they didn't know anything about the conflict in Syria.
"They think we came here because we want to do something bad to Canada. No. We want to be like Canadian people and we love Canadian people. We came to Canada because we love Canada."
Agnew said she wants to see security guards at future football games, along with more teachers in the stands.
She also hopes there will be better education of students, which is something Anglophone East Superintendent Gregg Ingersoll agrees with.
"Anytime there is a situation like this at a school event, the schools reflect on their supervision and the education of their student body," Ingersoll wrote in an email.
"The best prevention strategy is education and empowering students to hold each other responsible for expressing school spirit in a respectful way."
Ingersoll said both Moncton High School and Riverview High School administrators have followed up with the students involved in the incident.
"Sorting out who said or did what in a crowd of several hundred students can be challenging," he said. "However, [administrators] feel they have a good perspective on what actually happened. There were also several non-high school students involved as this is a public event."