Saturday, September 24, 2011
Abdiqani Mohamed unleashes a chant, sensing his group’s spirits are reeling from tiredness after a day of downpours and blisters.
“God is great,” he bellows in Somali. “God is great,” the group responds, gaining vigour with each refrain before setting off from the parking lot of a beige-brick strip mall in Pickering, just east of Toronto.
They have a long walk ahead: 350 kilometres to reach the nation’s capital by Monday. Famine in their homeland has brought these 20 young Canadian-Somalis together. They’re bonded by a common goal: to raise money and awareness for a humanitarian crisis that the United Nations estimates has killed tens of thousands of people and threatens, over the next four months, to starve to death 750,000 Somalis.
Walk for Somalia is one of several youth-driven groups that has formed in Toronto in response to the drought, violence and famine ravaging the African country. Long-time community leaders say they’re seeing an unprecedented level of engagement among young Canadian-Somalis, a spirit they hope will eventually be channelled into challenges facing other Somali youth in Toronto.
In a sense, the crisis in the Horn of Africa has precipitated their coming of age. Many young Canadian-Somalis are recent graduates of college or university. They’ve grown up in Canada; their parents sought refuge in the early 1990s, when the current civil war broke out in Somalia.
Year by year, they’ve watched from afar their old country disintegrate into one of the most violent and impoverished places on Earth. Now, galvanized by stark images and news stories of starving mothers, fathers and children, young Canadian-Somalis want to make a difference.
The UN has declared famine in six regions of south Somalia, which is mainly controlled by Islamist militants known as al-Shabaab. The international agency estimates 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
“It’s a huge, huge catastrophe. We need to stand up. We need to do something about it,” Mr. Mohamed says as he strides past roomy two-storey houses, rows and rows of them in the suburbs of Pickering.
“Canada is a very unique society that can take leadership on this issue. It’s got so much to share with the world,” adds the 33-year-old entrepreneur whose brother, Somali-American Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was briefly prime minister of their African homeland, from October, 2010, to June, 2011.
Toronto houses one of the largest Somali populations in North America and Europe. Canada’s official census pegs the Somali population at nearly 38,000, but the Canadian Somali Congress believes the figure actually stands around 200,000, with the majority residing in Toronto.
Canada’s Somali diaspora is an important contingent. Somalia’s Prime Minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, visited Toronto recently, appealing for financial aid and for government assistance in training military and police before attending a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York. His speech at a Toronto airport hotel last weekend drew about 1,000 Canadian-Somalis.
Famine has crippled Somalia before. Between 1991 and 1993, more than 200,000 people died and two million Somalis were displaced. For those who settled in Canada, fundraising wasn’t a big focus as they struggled to establish a new life, get their children to school and put food on the table.
“They couldn’t really respond in the way they have now,” says Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress. “We were trying to adapt. We didn’t have much purchasing power, economic power. We were much less integrated into Canadian society at the time.”
Famine fundraising efforts in Toronto this summer have ranged from small backyard barbecues to banquet-hall dinners and collections at subways and mosques. Canadian-Somali hip-hop artist K’naan has spoken out, pledging to establish the Somalia Legacy Fund next month to support Somali-led projects to alleviate poverty, famine and health threats.
Mr. Hussen doesn’t know how much money community events have raised, but estimates the tally is in the millions of dollars. And the constant flow of remittance hasn’t stopped. Around the world, the Somali diaspora sends about $1-billion each year to Somalia, Mr. Hussen says.
“Without remittances, Somalia wouldn’t stay afloat,” he notes.
In all, Canadians have pledged at least $36-million to famine relief. The federal government has agreed to match donations made by Sept. 16, but groups such as Walk for Somalia are advocating for an extension.
While touring Europe with her mother this summer, Fatouma Ahmed couldn’t get images of starving Somali children out of her mind. This was her first big vacation after graduating two years ago from York University, where she studied international affairs and sociology.
Ms. Ahmed, 25, felt guilty. Born in northern Somalia, she was seven years old when her family moved to Toronto in 1994. She has thrived in Canada, securing a good job with the federal government after university. She believes it’s her duty to help.
“We came here to have a better opportunity, and because we have a better opportunity, it doesn’t mean that we can turn a blind eye to what’s happening back home to our brothers and sisters,” she says. “We feel a sense of belonging. It’s our people, at the end of the day.”
When Ms. Ahmed returned to Toronto in early August, she immediately began phoning her friends in a bid to organize a fundraiser: Concerned Youth Bringing Hope to Somalia was born. Within a month, the group’s seven members planned a silent auction and a dinner for 200 people at Thorncliffe Banquet Hall, securing $90,000 in pledges for Human Concern International, a Canadian charity that works in Somalia and other poor and war-torn countries.
Tribal conflicts have long divided Somalis, but Ms. Ahmed sees a shift occurring at home, in Canada, especially among the younger generation.
“For the first time, I feel a sense of unity among all of us because we’re all fighting for one cause and we’re all fighting for a better Somalia,” she says.
Next month, Toronto youth groups that have formed in response to the Somalia famine plan to come together and talk. They want to learn from each other’s experiences and explore what to do next. Many see a role for themselves in building a better Somalia, even if that role isn’t entirely clear at the moment.
Faduma Mohamed has been a mentor to many of the Canadian-Somali youth groups. She says they’ve been at the forefront of the community’s famine-relief campaigns. The question now facing her and other community leaders is how best to foster this heightened level of youth engagement and make sure it lasts.
Mr. Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, hopes to channel some of that energy into challenges facing young Canadian-Somalis in Toronto and other parts of the country. For him, education is top of mind. Toronto District School Board statistics have shown students from certain ethnic groups, including Portuguese, Persian and Somali, are dropping out of high school at a disproportionate rate.
Back on the sidewalks of Pickering, 20 young Canadian-Somalis are focused on the steps ahead, 350 kilometres’ worth on the way to Ottawa. They’re marching in 20 communities, hoping to inspire more Canadians to give and political leaders to act.
If all goes according to plan, they’ll end their journey at 2 p.m. Monday, hopefully with $1-million in donation pledges. Along the way, they also hope to change perceptions about their generation.
“Canada has invested in us and we have intense human capital. Why not actually indulge in it and utilize it?” says 27-year-old Shadya Yasin, who helped organize the walk. “This is an opportunity for us to do something.”