Success stories are possible, but Somali-Canadians are faced with overcoming trauma

calgary herald—- When he arrived in Montreal three decades ago, the only job Hussein Warsame could get was as a bookkeeper, despite his newly minted MBA from an esteemed U.S. university. “They fired me after four days,” he says with a laugh. “They told me I was too slow.”

That early setback only fuelled the ambitions of the Somali-born man determined to start a new life in Canada. Since receiving his PhD at the University of Calgary in the early 1990s, Warsame has gone on to win numerous teaching awards and establish himself as a respected member of the international academic community.

“I guess you can call me a success story,” says Warsame, who is chair of the accounting area at the U of C’s Haskayne School of Business and a member of the school’s senate. “But there are quite a few success stories of Somali-Canadians, from doctors and lawyers to engineers and other professionals.”

Still, there is one area where lately Warsame has been feeling less than successful — that of his longtime role as an unofficial but much respected leader in the local Somali-Canadian community.

“We thought that as elders, we could step back and let the new generation of adults take over,” he says of the more than 5,000 Calgarians who either hail from the failed state in East Africa or were born into those families after their arrival in Canada. “We forgot to give scaffolding to these youth, to hold them in place until they were ready to be let go.”

For at least some of those younger community members, the results have been horrific. Over the past decade, more than 30 young men from Canada’s Somali community — the bulk of them migrants from Ontario — have met violent deaths, from the booming oil town of Fort McMurray to the back streets of its two major cities. In many cases, police forces have blamed an escalating gang and drug turf war in Alberta’s $5-billion narcotics trade, where young Somali-Canadian males are suspected to be in bottom-rung positions; in others, a case of a kid simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Shooting

In the first 48 hours of 2015, Calgary added two more names to the list: Abdullahi Ahmed, 26, shot at a house party on Jan. 1, and Murat Osman Omar, 23, found dead Jan. 2 in an alley following reports of gunshots.

Last summer, Calgary police responded to the increasing tensions by forming a team of 16 officers to patrol the Forest Lawn community where many of the businesses patronized by the community are centred — a patrol beat that is now 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

For both unofficial and official community leaders, though, such measures do little to get at the deeper problems plaguing some of their youth. Many stress that to tackle them, a number of things need to change and improve. Better housing, better school programs to help students — especially young males — graduate high school are among the recommendations. Many are also campaigning for better co-operation, and understanding, between the local Somali-Canadian community and local agencies and authorities.

Trauma, racism hamper Somali-Canadians

All the hard work and effort, though, is being hampered by what some Somali-Canadian leaders describe as systemic racism and stereotyping from the wider community, a claim borne out by recent studies on media reporting on crimes where Somali-Canadians are either the victims or the perpetrators.

While those arguments may read as overly defensive to some, they are supported by the academic work of Rima Berns-McGown, associate director of the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University.

In a 2013 study commissioned by the Institute for Research and Public Policy, Berns-McGown’s two decades of work on the Somali diaspora in Canada reveals a disconnect between public perceptions and the daily reality for the country’s more than 150,000 Somali-Canadians.

Where some are quick to conclude an immigrant group is particularly prone to crime and extremism, she sees a relatively new population that, when held up against the immense challenges faced, has done remarkably well.

“This is a community that fled war,” says Berns-McGown of the thousands who began entering Canada in the 1980s, due to the breakdown of civil society and outbreak of civil war in a country now described by many as the most lawless and dangerous in the world. “There is a lot of trauma that people bring — which is exacerbated by racism in the new country.”

Berns-McGown says the youth are hit with a double-whammy of being black and being Muslim; most Somalis are from the Sunni Muslim faith. “They’re suspected by Canadian society for all kinds of other reasons,” she says of the youth known as Children of the Snow, the generation raised by those who fled civil war two decades ago. “They are having to navigate stuff white Canadian kids never have to deal with.”

Still, Berns-McGown says all Canadians must act when things go tragically wrong, as in the case of the recent spate of violence in Calgary and other parts of the province involving young men of Somali origin. “We need to take a hard look at our schools, how we are helping or hindering,” she says, along with rehabilitation efforts at the juvenile crime level. “Creating public/private partnerships for summer jobs for young people would also give them opportunities.”

somali canadianYouth need opportunities in the community

Among the local organizations already doing such work is Immigrant Services Calgary. “We’re trying to make those connections before trouble starts,” says Wendy Auger, director of the organization’s Mosaic Family Centre. Tanya McCagherty, manager of education and employment services at Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, echoes that aim.

“It’s about how to succeed in Calgary, in Canada,” says McCagherty, whose organization runs the Beltline Youth Centre, as well as such immigrant youth work initiatives as the long-standing annual partnership with the Calgary Stampede. “We need to give these kids opportunities, but also a place where they can share their experiences.”

Somali-born Fawzia Isse says such concerns have remained front and centre as she raised six kids, three of them born in Canada. “The kids adopt the new culture, some for good, others for bad,” says Isse, whose adult kids include an engineer, a hotel director and a school counsellor. “This is a big loss for our community, these two boys killed,” says Isse, who has worked for years with Somali-Canadian families struggling to adjust to life here. “We need to all work together as Canadians on this issue.”

That is a commitment Hussein Warsame also hopes to keep in the coming weeks and months.

“There are fault lines in our community,” says Warsame, who later this month will welcome two young Somali-Canadians into the professional fold at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta graduation ceremonies. “Until we overcome that, we cannot blame the general community for our failures.”

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