ATT Australia: No, Not All Arab Men Are Violent Thugs

A seemingly sudden and sad death of a young man, quickly turned into headline-grabbing fodder that smelled suspiciously like covert racism.

When school friends visited my family home and saw my aunties and mother chatting in Arabic, they would often turn to me wide-eyed and ask, “What are they screaming about? Why are they so angry?”

They weren’t angry, they were just discussing which supermarket had better sales on tinned tuna and why it was so hot given it was already May.

It’s easy to understand why an 11-year-old Anglo Australian with little exposure to Lebanese culture would have such a limited understanding of cultural and language nuances.

But there’s no forgiving a national health care body who lambasted, derided and outright fabricated the actions of a supposed "violent mob” of family members who were in the midst of losing a loved one.

Emergency services were called to Riverwood in Sydney’s south on Sunday morning, where 25-year-old Hamze Ibrahim was in cardiac arrest. Dozens of relatives (many of whom lived close by) had rushed to Ibrahim’s home after learning about his ill-health. He died at the scene.

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The Australian Paramedics Association (APA) released a statement shortly after, saying paramedics had been attacked by an “irate” mob of “angry males” who prevented them from saving Ibrahim’s life.

“The stupidity of these people have taken the life of their family member," union Secretary Steve Pearse said in a statement.

“These people” were emotional -- sure, loud -- probably, and many in number -- which is very common for Arabic-speaking families.

But “these people” deserved sympathy, empathy and support rather than derision.

When the narrative in a post-September 11 world surrounding men of Middle Eastern appearance is often linked to police descriptions of potential suspects (although men with blonde hair and pale skin very rarely get such descriptors attached to their alleged crimes), it’s not difficult to conclude why finger-pointing instead of words of support were sent this family’s way.

With an increasingly conservative government in power -- who are often propped up by shock jocks fanning their anti-immigration and anti-refugee policy positions --the flow-on effects are bound to be felt.

Pearse also said the situation was a paramedic's “worst nightmare” to “have to manage a cardiac arrest when their safety is at risk.”

The monumental backflip that came from the union less than 36 hours later, does little to comfort the mother and wife of Ibrahim who must, indeed, be grappling with their “worst nightmare”.

The APA released a whoopsy-we-got-it-wrong statement and attempted to retract pretty much every comment made. But irreparable damage has been done.

It has since been revealed that a paramedic stood outside the unit in response to the sheer number of emotional and distraught people gathering at the property -- not in response to aggression towards the health workers.

A dozen police officers, not 60, came to the home to help manage the increasing number of bewildered friends and relatives. No one’s safety was at risk, no one had to barricade themselves in a room.

I absolutely understand that front line health workers need to do their jobs without fear for their safety. I’m well aware of the often alcohol or drug fuelled (and other violent) attacks on paramedics. However this case was not one of them as APA later clarified.

At best this tragic incident demonstrates a complete lack of cultural awareness about different demonstrations of grief, at worst the original statements made by the paramedic’s union shows racial profiling has permeated a health service which is there to help all Australians.

Given 49 percent of Australians are either born overseas or have one parent born overseas and one in five people speak a language other than English at home -- it would be worthwhile for the paramedics union to roll out some cultural understanding and sensitivity training.

Grief and bereavement differs among individuals, religions and broader communities. Why is the Anglo-saxon model of grief the only acceptable version?

My grandmother wore black for more than a dozen years after losing her child and sobbed almost every time I saw her over the loss of her eldest son.

The first time I went to an Anglo funeral, I was surprised to see people drinking alcohol and sharing happy stories and some laughs at the wake -- which was a celebration of life. This was in stark contrast to the very sombre and highly ritualised mourning that I am accustomed to.

Visiting a relative at Bankstown Hospital last weekend, I witnessed a doctor giving a dire patient update to no less than 30 Middle Eastern family members crammed in the corridors. Sure it was difficult to navigate the hospital hallways, and they were pretty vocal and anxious as they digested the prognosis. But they were no mob, they were a large, close-knit family supporting a dying relative, in the only way they knew how -- by banding together.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au

Antoinette Lattouf is a Senior Reporter at ten daily and Director of Media Diversity Australia.