A bus ride gone bad prompts reflections on immigration, mental health and humanity

July 22, 2018

By Global and Mail |

On Sunday morning, I boarded a city bus in Copenhagen. There were only a few people aboard, a mix of early morning workers, revelers headed to after-parties, and travellers.

There was also one young man screaming angrily, displaying an amazing ability to curse in multiple languages.

This type of outburst is not an unusual occurrence on public transport in big cities. Passengers, as they are wont to do, ignored him, aside from one man who tried to engage him in conversation.

The bus driver was indulgent, too: “My friend, please have a seat. I don’t want to have to call the police.”

The young man suddenly bolted to the front.

The bus stopped in the middle of the road. The driver made a quiet, whimpering sound.

From where I was sitting it was not clear what happened. But the driver had been punched repeatedly. Initially, it was feared he had been stabbed because he was covered in blood, but that was likely due to a broken nose.

Another passenger jumped up and swiftly subdued the attacker. He was from Syria and had done police/military training. Another called 1-1-2 (the Danish version of 9-1-1).

Two women, both wearing hijabs, ran to the driver and began first aid. They both work at a nearby hospital – one is from Somalia, the other from Iraq.

Police arrived swiftly. The young man was arrested and handcuffed. Despite his injuries, the driver – also an immigrant – asked police to ensure the man get help for his “mental sickness.”

It all happened very quickly. I had only travelled one stop. But that short, eventful ride, prompted much reflection.

Denmark, like many Western countries, is in the midst of a fierce public debate about the place of immigrants and refugees, and whether they can adapt to Western values.

But the incident on the bus serves as a reminder that some values are universal, such as reaching out to help a fellow human who is in trouble.

In the moment, skin colour, head covering, language didn’t matter. People acted, fearlessly and unselfishly.

Most people are good people; we don’t acknowledge that fact often enough.

The swift actions of passengers also served as humbling reminder that immigrants and refugees – who came to this tiny Nordic country, just as they come to Canada, to escape war, poverty and oppression, and to taste freedom – bring with them a panoply of skills and abilities that we rarely see, especially when these individuals end up with menial jobs, well below their skill-level.

It is not newcomers we have to fear, but the assumptions we make about them. It is not their values that we should worry about, but how we fail to value their potential.

The other aspect of this story that merits reflection is the protagonist-slash-attacker.

How did a young man who appeared to be suffering from serious mental illness (an observation, not a diagnosis) find himself on that bus? Will he get the help he needs, or just cycle through prison? Why didn’t he get help earlier?

People with severe, untreated mental illness have become a part of the urban landscape, even in wealthy countries with extensive social safety nets such as Denmark and Canada.

We have become accustomed to looking away, to making them invisible, until we are confronted with an incident like this one.

I hesitated to recount this story because I didn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that mental illness equals violence. Research clearly shows that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators.

But, too often, help is not available until a crisis occurs – until we cannot look away.

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