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Hamdi Mohamed - Reimagining Ottawa
Hamdi Mohamed, Executive director of OCISO (Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization), is a Somali, Muslim woman. As such, she represents a new generation of leaders in her field, and her goal is nothing short of reframing the way Ottawa sees itself. Her job involves a lot of organizing, but at the root of it all is people. Photographed at the OCISO offices in Ottawa.0.
Hamdi Mohamed, Executive director of OCISO (Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization), is a Somali, Muslim woman. As such, she represents a new generation of leaders in her field, and her goal is nothing short of reframing the way Ottawa sees itself. Her job involves a lot of organizing, but at the root of it all is people. Photographed at the OCISO offices in Ottawa.n Photograph by: Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen

By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

When Hamdi Mohamed gave birth to her son Adam nine years ago, family and friends filled her room at the Civic Hospital to celebrate. A young refugee from Somalia, Mohamed had persevered to complete her PhD in history at the University of Ottawa. After a decade marked by dislocation and loss, Mohamed felt a deep sense that now, life was good.

A few days later, alone with her newborn, she burst into tears.

“I suddenly became consciously aware of the fact that I couldn’t show my son where I had lived, the trees I had climbed, the sand I had played in, the friends I had had. I wanted to share these things with my son and I couldn’t,” says Mohamed.

That lesson is one of many that fuels her work as executive director of Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). One of Ottawa’s oldest agencies serving newcomers, OCISO traditionally focused on providing crucial early assistance with jobs, skills and shelter. But since she took the job two years ago, Mohamed and her team have been crafting an expanded mission, one that reflects what they see every day: building a new life means more than finding a job and getting a roof over your head, it means feeling accepted in a new home while having the freedom to mourn the old.

It’s the acceptance part that Mohamed is determined to get Ottawa talking about. OCISO has been putting an emphasis on public events and education programs, as well as partnerships with fellow agencies in immigrant services. Those efforts are bearing fruit in 2010 with the launch of two projects aimed at sparking a civic conversation about community.

Unlike Toronto or Montreal, “in Ottawa, the notion of being diverse is still new,” says Mohamed. “We’re generally kind and generous people but when it comes to difference, we hesitate. But now, the numbers are pushing us to ask, ‘Who are we now?’”

The numbers say roughly a quarter of us were born outside Canada. A city dominated for decades by Europeans, in particular French and English, is now home to large populations of Chinese, Somali, Congolese, and many others.

But in spite of high education levels, recent immigrants to Ottawa are more likely to be unemployed and living below the poverty line than their Canadian-born neighbours. They have difficulty getting credentials recognized, or getting jobs without “Canadian experience.”

For many — particularly Muslim newcomers and those of African descent — the struggle of daily life in the national capital can be overwhelming, Mohamed says.

“A friend of mine calls it The Thousands Deaths,” says Mohamed. “It’s the bus that didn’t stop for a woman wearing a hijab, but suddenly slows down when a white person comes along, or the teacher who reflexively says to a young refugee, ‘You, in medical school? Really?’”

Whether it’s what Mohamed calls “the bigotry of low expectations,” or the naked prejudice of a landlord refusing to rent to anyone who isn’t white, or the invisibility of recent immigrants in politics, education and media, it adds up to the same thing: too many people feeling unwelcome, at a time Ottawa needs them most.

That disconnect has been apparent for several years. City planners predict that within a few years, Ottawa will need immigrants to fill all new jobs. And yet many of the newcomers already here face huge obstacles to employment and integration, and — like other Canadian urban centres — Ottawa is attracting fewer and fewer immigrants every year.

“All these people not feeling welcome here means we lose that creativity, that energy, that productivity,” says Mohamed. “It’s not fluff, it’s real.”

Early in the new year, OCISO and its partners in the LASI coalition (Local Agencies Serving Immigrants) will see the launch of an initiative Mohamed and several others have worked hard to create: the new Local Immigration Partnership. Funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and led by the City of Ottawa and LASI, the partnership plans to gather people from across the city — including newcomers and service providers, businesses and the public sector — to brainstorm about improving the integration of immigrants into schools, neighbourhoods and the local economy.

“It’s about coming up with a strategic plan to make the city more inclusive,” says Mohamed, who is vice-president of LASI. “We are quite excited to be demonstrating that immigrant issues should not just be immigrant sector issues — this is about building community.”

At the same time, OCISO is about to launch its own ambitious curriculum on leadership and diversity. Developed with local school boards, the new curriculum — aimed at high school students of all backgrounds — will include a credit course, peer mentoring and discussion groups for parents.

“Many youth are doing a brilliant job of navigating their multiple identities — as sons and daughters, as refugees, as Canadians — but some are falling through the cracks,” says Mohamed. “This curriculum is designed to provide a safe space for youth to learn what they have to contribute and talk about what matters to them.”

A historian with a long career in the social sector, including 11 years at helm of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Sector, Mohamed sounds like a psychologist when she talks about getting Ottawa beyond the “food and festivals” level of multicultural understanding.

“I used to be all theoretical and abstract, but now I know we need to listen to people’s fears,” says Mohamed. “What are people afraid of losing — their power, their language, their culture? We need to talk about what threatens us, what makes us afraid, and get to the deeper level, and see that we share core values like liberty, honesty and compassion.”

Carl Nicholson, executive director of the Catholic Immigration Centre, fellow LASI member and one of the driving forces behind the Local Immigration Partnership, says Mohamed’s passion reflects the sense of mission in the immigrant services sector, which began with dedicated volunteers working in church basements.

“We’re trying to build a better town — it’s about inclusion for everybody,” says Nicholson. “Hamdi gets that, and she brings a legitimacy to our sector that we haven’t had. She is not only smart and eminently qualified in the official sense, she’s methodical, clear-headed and analytical. Her presence as a Muslim woman also challenges a lot of myths about Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular.”

It’s easy to see why Mohamed’s friends tease that she’s not a person, she’s an institution. A respected leader in the local Somali community, she seizes every opportunity to build understanding, whether it’s by giving her son’s teacher a CD of music from around the world for Eid ul-Fitr or scrutinizing the arrangement of chairs and tables at a meeting to be sure it’s welcoming enough.

“This is a beautiful country with possibility, a country open to reimagining itself,” says Mohamed. “If we listened to our gut instinct, we’d all stay in our little rooms. I want us to embrace our discomfort, to acknowledge our differences and say, ‘Let’s push ourselves and take the steps to get to know each other.’”

CORRECTION: Hamdi Mohamed has been executive director of Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization for four years, not two, and was executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, not Sector, for one year, not 11. Incorrect information appeared in this article.