‘I didn’t know what to do’: Omar Siam on dealing with racism in the workplace

Maltin Bħalek | Omar Siam | 21-year-old Omar speaks on racist attacks and the need for more education

Omar Siam
Omar Siam

Omar do you feel different?

As a person I obviously feel normal, and don’t exactly feel different, but obviously certain situations maybe do make me feel different.

And did you have any experiences which made you feel different? Let me give you an example: For example, when I used to attend primary school, during the assembly, when other children used to do the sign of the cross, because I do not subscribe to that symbol, that gesture, I used to say ‘I am different’ because I don’t do the same. Did you ever have any similar experiences?

Obviously, because as you said, the different religion, because I don’t have any religion, I still felt that difference. Because you have darker skin, obviously there is that tendency in assuming that you are not of the same Christian religion. When I was young, there was a case I remember clearly, I was in primary school, and at the time there was a student who when children were receiving the Eucharist, stood up and told the teacher ‘Omar cannot receive the Eucharist, because he is not Christian', and being the young boy I was, I was maybe 8-years-old, it was etched in my memory, because as a young boy I felt different.

It’s something you remember for the wrong reasons.

Omar were you ever in a situation where you had to justify being Maltese? Is there a need to justify being Maltese?

Obviously, I see no reason why you have to justify your nationality. In the sense it is your own, you do not need to prove it. But obviously, in day to day situations, there are people that you have to show them that rather than being Maltese, you are not a foreigner. That is the assumption, that I am a foreigner, that you don’t speak Maltese, and I had experiences where a person passed comments on me, thinking I am not understanding, and when you speak to them in Maltese, they are taken by surprise.

It’s like when you speak in Maltese, the walls come down. So the language brought down that barrier you’re speaking about…

Exactly, when they realise you’re Maltese, they feel more comfortable. 

Because you’re speaking in Maltese…

But the fact remains that the person originally had a different view of you. Language does not make a difference.

You mentioned school and work, when you speaking to friends, it’s an intimate thing, did you ever feel the need to make more friends, you had to justify being Maltese, and that you were not different?

When you are younger, you don’t look into it that much, when you have a group of friends, when you are yet to find your place in life, I think it’s normal for people like us to have heard certain comments. Like the word ‘black’, like you said assumptions about you. Things which at the time I was never bothered about. But, nowadays, I look back and think it would have been better to show the person that he is making a mistake, but I never felt the need to do that extra effort with my friends to justify being Maltese.

Some argue the Maltese are racist. Do you agree?

I don’t think the Maltese are racist, but I don’t feel there is enough information. In our scholastic system for example, there isn’t enough information on racism, to raise awareness and that is why you start hearing about these things at such a young age.

We probably experienced them…

That’s what I was going to ask you: did you ever experience racism?

Yes, my colleague had said to me when I punched into work, in front of the manager: ‘Did you wash yourself in coal today?’

And obviously with the manager looking at you, you don’t know what to say.

On social media, I see a lot of comments which are intrinsically racist. How do you feel when you see these comments?

These days you see a lot of them. You don’t need to search to find these comments. After a football match for example, you see these same things happening over and over again. I’m obviously hurt when I see these comments. At their lowest, people find a way to attack them, and you never know how a person might feel, and it could be that turning point which could break him.

You also see groups which forward the anti-foreigner agenda, like Defend Malta, Ir-reati tal-Barranin, these pages. I’m sure you’ve come across them. How do you feel, when you know that even in Malta you can find these people?

Listen, I’m not surprised. It’s normal to hear, even my friends tell me how their parents used to tell them, ‘Don’t go near that black guy’ or if they see them speaking to a person of different nationality,

They’re scared…

They’re scared, just because of the different skin, but I am not surprised. More work needs to be done, so that these groups open their eyes maybe… more education is needed, so that we can win the fight against racism.

So, you see education as the solution…

As I said, I don’t think the Maltese are racist, I don’t believe anyone is intrinsically racist, but I believe that there is a connotation of fear as well.