When Haneen was in high school, she was badly bullied online, forcing her to completely isolate herself.
“I felt helpless … I had no friends,” the 20-year-old, who uses a pseudonym, told The National.
In 2019, Haneen, a cancer patient at the time, was pushed to breaking point after a video mocking her looks went viral. The incident gave her suicidal thoughts, she said.
A victim of online bullying himself, 29-year-old Ghaith Sandouk was motivated to create a new platform to help people such as Haneen overcome these challenges.
“[Haneen's] incident of cyberbullying is what pushed me to act,” Mr Sandouk told The National. “It was a turning point”.
While discussing with friends ways to fight online bullying “Al-bo’bo was born”, said the UAE-based Syrian tech entrepreneur.
In Arabic, Al-bo’bo is the name given to a traditional bogeyman used by adults to scare children into behaving.
Al-bo’bo is a youth-led non-profit online initiative on Facebook and Instagram, driven by volunteers.
It creates easily accessible digital content in a colloquial Arabic dialect, in collaboration with the help of social media influencers to spread their message, say organisers.
Based in Syria, the 25 volunteers behind Al-bo’bo include mental health practitioners, writers and graphic designers who create online posts, spreading awareness about cyberbullying and other issues.
“Al-bo’bo changed everything,” Haneen told The National.
“The content I read on the platform made me stronger. It helped me deal with the bullies and express my emotions without constraints.”
Joke or bullying?
The concept behind giving the initiative the name Al-bo’bo is that it represents the horrifying experience of being bullied.
But while it may seem scary and intimidating, “as awareness grows about the nature of cyberbullying and the motives behind it, [Al-bo’bo] shrinks back to its real size”, said Mr Sandouk.
The content engages users through tips on how to navigate a variety of mental health issues – how to fight depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and maintain healthy relationships.
Al-bo’bo stands out in a country where psychological support centres are rare – giving hope to Syrian youth traumatised by the civil war that began in 2011.
One post poses the question: “Joke or bullying?” It then explains how to tell the difference. The conclusion: “Not every joke is bullying, but bullying is definitely not a joke.”
With just under 60,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, Mr Sandouk, who was recognised as one of the 21 Arab Youth Pioneers by the UAE-based Arab Youth Centre for digital innovation in 2023, says Al-bo’bo's content has reached around 2.1 million people.
“But I could never have achieved this alone,” said Mr Sandouk.
Volunteers like 22-year-old Ghena Mohammed, an executive co-ordinator with Al-bo’bo, talk about how rewarding it is to see their work having such a positive impact.
But the work also takes an emotional toll, she told The National.
“Some cases had to be referred to mental health professionals, but cost and the negative social perception of mental health challenges often deters them from seeking help,” she said.
The platform highlights the importance of mental health in a region where suffering from psychological issues is still widely considered a taboo.
Some videos are filmed on the streets of Damascus, asking ordinary people on the street about their experiences of bullying.
“The skewed perceptions and stigma associated with mental health issues link psychological disorders with weakness, lack of faith, or cognitive distortion,” mental health specialist Lama Abdulnour told The National.
This is why people refuse to get help, she says.
“This is what I want to change through my work with Al-bo’bo,” said Ms Abdulnour.
In a 2021 report, the World Health Organisation said one in five people in conflict-affected areas suffer from psychological conditions.
A study of 3,326 Syrians found that more than 83 per cent showed symptoms of depression and almost 70 per cent had symptoms of anxiety.
Mr Sandouk and his team now dream of setting up a mental health centre encouraging Syrian society to tackle bullying and hate speech.
But in a country in turmoil, where mental health is considered secondary, these dreams may take some time to be fulfilled.
This article was written in collaboration with Egab.