Five Years Ago A Viral Video Changed Apple Forever – For Mohamed, It Was Just The Beginning

In 2015, six Black teenagers were denied entry to an Apple store. Since that moment, Mohamed Semra hasn't stopped fighting for change.

Mohamed Semra

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It’s not every day you go viral, but for Mohamed Semra, a Sudanese-born refugee, this moment would come when he was just sixteen years old. One video changed the course of his life forever and now, there’s a human rights award to prove it.

In 2015, Mohamed and six friends — all Black teenagers — were denied entry to an Apple store at Highpoint Shopping Centre in Melbourne’s west under suspicion (there was no evidence) by an Apple employee that they might “steal something”. A video shows an Apple employee and security guard standing at the entrance of the Highpoint store, while Mohamed and his friends continuously ask why they’re being singled out, as other customers can be seen casually entering the store. One of students asks the Apple employee, “Why would we steal something?”. No answer was given.

What followed was a viral video that amassed over 300,000 views on Facebook.

The video was met with a chorus of backlash and sparked global change in how Apple stores conducted their inclusion and customer engagement.

In an email apology, Apple CEO Tim Cook called the incident “unacceptable” and announced that “store leadership teams around the world, starting in Australia, will be refreshing their training on inclusion and customer engagement”.

It’s hard to believe that all this stemmed from one moment, at one Apple store, all the way here in Australia — but it did. However, for Mohamed, what happened in the video was simply business as usual.

“What happened to us in the Apple store wasn’t the first time, it was just the first time we got it on camera. That video showed what it’s really like being Black and of African appearance in Australia,” Mohamed told Junkee.

Making A Change In Schools

The aftermath of the viral video and global headlines propelled Mohamed on the path of activism, a calling he says might have never been.

“After that video, I realised I could change the world in one way or another,” he said.

“When I speak with students, I hear the same stories of them experiencing racism. Not much has changed since I was in school.”

In 2017, Mohamed became school captain at Maribyrnong College — a first for an African student from a refugee background. In his role he advocated for Black students and tackled the unconscious bias he saw in some of his teachers. After he graduated, this experience led him to establish an organisation, Endeavour Youth Australia, that assists young people from diverse backgrounds to realise their leadership potential.

The 22-year-old’s focus on schools came from his own experience with racism from both students and teachers. Mohamed has been speaking at Victorian schools since 2019 and has no plans to stop until racism is a thing of the past.

“School is such an important time in young people’s lives. When I speak with students, I hear the same stories of them experiencing racism. Not much has changed since I was in school.”

Mohamed recalls one incident where teachers referred to him and other Black pupils as “gang members”, and even went as far as preventing them from walking or gathering in groups. The complaints of racism range from derogatory remarks like the n-word, to physical abuse and discriminatory school policies.

A 2019 study by the Australian National University found one-third ofVictorian government school students have experienced racial discrimination from their peers. There is currently a petition calling for education ministers in Australia to “make it illegal for schools’ uniform policies to discriminate against students’ natural Afro hair”.

Despite the shocking statistics, and the glacial pace of ‘change’, Mohamed feels now more than ever Australians need to be aware of what’s going on.

“We must keep having these conversations and pushing for change.”

Making An Impact In The Community

In 2020, during the hard lockdown of nine public housing estates in Flemington and North Melbourne, Mohamed (who volunteered during relief efforts) was inspired to run for his local council of Maribyrnong.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic proved that culturally and linguistically diverse people were at the risk of being ‘left behind’ and the hard lockdown was a damning example of that.

“What happened at the public housing estates was really bad. The government’s response was horrible,” he told Junkee.

“Council lacked diversity and I needed to give my community a voice.”

Mohamed’s run for council wasn’t successful, but he plans on running again in 2024 with more time to prepare and the ability to campaign on the ground without the restrictions of a pandemic. The support of his local community has kept him motivated to pursue his goal.

“I wasn’t seeing my community reflected in the council members. Council lacked diversity and I needed to give my community a voice.”

In the meantime, before the next council election, Mohamed is continuing to bring lasting change to Victorian schools. With Endeavour Youth Australia, Mohamed is trying to emulate the change brought on by the viral video to address systemic racism in schools. His focus is on cultural awareness workshops and speaking to students about the kind of change they want to see.

This July, Mohamed was awarded Victoria’s most prestigious human rights award, the Liberty Victoria Young Voltaire Human Rights Award. Past recipients of Liberty Victoria’s Voltaire Human Rights Award include Waleed Aly, Magda Szubanski, and Dylan Alcott.

The award recognises recipients that have made “an outstanding contribution to or action on free speech, human rights, or civil liberties, with particular emphasis on progressing freedom, respect, equality, and dignity”.

Liberty Victoria President Julia Kretzenbacher praised Mohamed’s work to support “hundreds of young people to build their confidence, learn active citizenship, and leadership skills”.

Looking To The Future

Reflecting on what the viral video taught him, Mohamed has come to understand that change comes from the top. He is focused on calling to those in high positions, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, to set the precedent toward systemic change.

“The only way for things to get better is through institutional change. We have to speak up about it to get that change.”

Najma Sambul is a Somali-Australian freelance journalist from Melbourne. Najma is on the internet as najsambul.

Photo Credit: Supplied