A victim no more, Mostafa Ashraf took it upon himself to fight back and help others, founding an organisation that has helped many youth
CAiRO – Dressed in casual clothing and sneakers, Mostafa Ashraf is a young man with a kind face, who always wears a smile. He dreams of an Egypt that one day will be free of bullying.
Ashraf lost his best friend to suicide caused by bullying at school. Later he would try to take his own life as a result of the same bullying that drove his friend, Jasmine, to kill herself.
“Jasmine was always upset and depressed a little before she was 12. She didn’t even share with me what was going on, only mentioning she was bullied,” Ashraf recalled with sadness.
It was a very dark time for me. I was always alone, never really wishing to interact with others, which made them get to me
- Mostafa Ashraf, founder of Advice Seekers
“I lost the only person I could talk to. I got depressed afterwards and I exhibited anger management behaviour,” he said.
What started as a painful and shocking experience for a child, years later led Ashraf to found Advice Seekers, a self-funded organisation that combats bullying.
“When I was almost 11, I used to get bullied a lot because of my looks. Wicked kids also made fun of me as I would speak English most of the time for my Arabic was weak,” he recalled.
Ashraf attempted to kill himself twice.
“It was a very dark time for me. I was always alone, never really wishing to interact with others, which made them get to me,” Ashraf recalled.
When he was 14, Ashraf tried to commit suicide at a friend’s house by slitting his wrist, but his friend stopped him just in time.
Advice Seekers sometimes show films they have produced on bullying to children (Courtesy of Mostafa Ashraf)
“That night I slept over at his place because we had a school project coming up. He stayed awake all night watching over me fearing that I would repeat my attempt,” Ashraf recalled.
“What he did made me think that I should be helping others rather than kill myself.”
At the time, Ashraf did not resort to any kind of therapy but rather depended on his supportive father. But four years later, he got severely depressed and attempted to end his life again.
Helping lots of people felt good, but sometimes you could help others and fail to help yourself
- Mostafa Ashraf, founder of Advice Seekers
“Helping lots of people felt good, but sometimes you could help others and fail to help yourself,” Ashraf said.
“I tried to suffocate myself using a pillow, but it didn’t work out. Then I tried to cut my wrist, and I also failed,” he said.
At this point, Ashraf sought psychological help.
“At the age of 18, I totally broke down and I started seeing a psychologist and I kept taking psychotherapy sessions for a while to get treated for depression, which helped a lot,” he said.
When he founded Advice Seekers in 2014, Ashraf only promoted the organisation online, yet he soon realised he wanted to have a presence on the ground.
“I kept posting tips on how to combat bullying…and I received messages from victims that I answered relying on my personal experience,” he explained.
Although many schools rejected Ashraf’s attempts to give presentations when they learnt of his age, he did not give up.
“I took one year off from school as I had finished all the subjects of grade 12 in grades 10 and 11, and I studied psychology courses. When I realised I had a fear of confrontation, I learned skills of public speaking as well as people’s body language,” he recalled.
Mostafa Ashraf has spoken to and influenced hundreds of students (Courtesy of Mostafa Ashraf)
The initiative developed slowly until, one year later, Modern Academy, the computer science and management technology school in Cairo's Maadi, opened its doors to Ashraf, offering him the chance to start an anti-bullying campaign on campus.
As things progressed, Ashraf was joined by several volunteers and they became anti-bullying consultants for a number of private and international schools in Egypt. Ashraf was almost 18 at the time.
Ashraf currently works as a freelance video editor when he is not doing the advocacy work. Even though he was offered scholarships from prestigious universities in the US and England, he has decided to not pursue higher education in order to dedicate his time to Advice Seekers “at least for the time being”.
Ashraf, who will soon turn 21, has positively influenced the lives of hundreds of students.
“I was a victim of bullying and I thought about suicide every single day," a middle school student, who declined to mention his name or his school for fear of being bullied, told MEE.
I always sought excuses to skip school even though I was a straight-A student. I usually kept to myself, but after I communicated with Advice Seekers volunteers, I felt much better. They taught me how to stand up for myself- middle school student
For example, roleplay is offered to students belonging to grades three to six.
“We interact with the students, asking the teachers to roleplay with them about bullying scenarios. We also play short films produced by the organisation on bullying,” Ashraf said.
“Children usually go way off course, so I get teachers involved. I play two scenarios when in one I’m the bully and another, a teacher is the bully,” Ashraf said.
There is a favourable scenario when a teacher acts as if he bullies Ashraf, and he responds in a good way.
“For instance, if a bully tells me ‘you are ugly,’ my answer would be: ‘you see me this way, but I believe I’m handsome. In another scenario, I answer saying: ‘you are the one who is ugly.’ At this point, I ask the participants about what the right response is,” he explained.
A third scenario depicts physical bullying.
“For instance, a teacher pushes me, and I push back. Out of this, we teach the students that violence is not the answer and that hitting back makes a person a bully too," Ashraf said.
What is bullying?
UNICEF defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behaviour that occurs in an intentional and repeated manner causing another child to feel hurt”.
Bullying can take multiple forms: spreading rumours, threatening physical or verbal assault, engaging in insidious practices such as excluding a child from a group to hurt the victim or any other gestures or actions that occur in a less visible manner.
Cyberbullying involves posting or sending electronic messages including text, pictures or videos aimed at harassing, threatening or spreading rumours about another person via a variety of digital platforms such as online social networks, chat rooms and blogs.
Victims of victims
According to a psychologist and counsellor at an international school in Cairo, both bullies and those they bully are “victims”.
“Usually bullies were subjected to psychological ordeals and oppression that led them to act in such a way,” she explained on condition of anonymity. “Some got bullied themselves before, whether by their peers or by oppressive parents or siblings.
“We handle a bully by tackling the feeling that led to the bullying behaviour…but unfortunately, bullies mostly don’t resort to counselling,” she added.
School administrators follow a similar approach.
“In most cases, I use guidance and advice with bullies…and in many cases they back off. But if the act is repetitive, the bully is referred to the school counsellor,” said a high school principal also at an international school in Cairo, who declined to be named.
“We resort to suspension in cases of physical bullying, which are not as common as verbal bullying,” she added.
Even though not a single day passes without receiving between 5-10 bullying complaints, “90 percent of the cases are not reported, mainly out of fear of the bullies”.
In an interview last September with Egyptian TV presenter Amr Adeeb on the El-Hekaya show on MBC Misr, Hala Abu Khatwa, the communication manager at UNICEF Egypt, said that about 70 percent of schoolchildren in Egypt aged 13 -17 have been subjected to bullying, making it a common phenomenon in the country.
For Advice Seekers, holding campaigns at public schools is not an easy job.
Children in a school auditorium listen to Mostafa Ashraf as he speaks to them (Courtesy of Mostafa Ashraf)
“We proposed to hold sessions at public schools before and when we were asked about the material of the session, we faced rejections. They told us we can’t talk about depression, self-harm or suicide,” Ashraf said.
“How am I supposed to warn kids about the consequences of bullying, then?" he wondered.
In September, a few days ahead of the new academic year in Egypt, the government-backed National Council for Children and Motherhood (NCCM) sponsored the first national campaign calling to end peer-to-peer violence.
The initiative was done in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Education and Technical Education (MOETE) in cooperation with UNICEF and was funded by the European Union (EU).
The campaign encouraged children and young people around the country to voice their experiences, views and solutions to end bullying using the campaign hashtag #IAmAgainstBullying.
Teachers can be bullies
Not only do students get bullied by their peers, but teachers can also be bullies.
During the last week of November, 18-year old Iman Saleh committed suicide by leaping off a balcony in Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
In a voice message she had sent earlier to a friend of hers, she complained of school supervisors who had made fun of her dark complexion, her hair and the way she dressed, telling her she looked like a boy and questioning her femininity.
The victim’s mother reported the school supervisors to the prosecution, accusing them of causing her daughter’s suicide. There is still an open investigation pending.
In the same week of the Alexandria incident, a teacher bullied and mocked an eighth-grade child named Basmala Ali at a Damietta school in north-western Egypt.
Roleplay is often used to bring awareness about bullying to children in grades three to six (Courtesy of Mostafa Ashraf)
State-run news site al-Ahram online quoted Ali as saying that her Arabic teacher left her in tears after “he referred to [her] as ‘black’ in a question for classmates to identify the grammatical inflexion in the sentence ‘Basmala is a black student.’”
Because the parents took action and reported the incident to both the education ministry and the prosecution, the teacher was suspended, interrogated and even remanded in custody for several days. His fate is yet to be known.
We can’t stop it but we can prevent it from happening by raising awareness and standing up for the person getting bullied
- Mostafa Ashraf
With campaigns such as Ashraf's raising awareness about widespread bullying in Egypt, the question is, can it be ended?
“People always tell me that I have been holding campaigns for five years now and bullying has never stopped,” Ashraf said. "My answer is: bullying will never end. You have generations and generations to come that will start bullying others.
“We can’t stop it but we can prevent it from happening by raising awareness and standing up for the person getting bullied,” he concluded.
For the time being, Mostafa Ashraf is dedicated to his work with students and will not pursue university (Courtesy of Mostafa Ashraf)