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Somali mothers step up for community

Having seen enough of the city's Somali youth on the wrong side of the law, Hawa Mohamed decided it was time to act, writes Louisa Taylor

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The members of the Canadian Somali Mothers Association include, left to right, Khadra Mohamed, Safia Farah and Hawa Mohamed, who have joined others in coming together to advocate for their sons in schools and in the justice system and to help offer assistance to those in legal trouble.

Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Citizen

When Hawa Mohamed's 23-year-old son was charged with murder in 2006, she told only a handful of close friends. Burning with shame at having a son accused of a crime, searching for where she had failed as a parent, Mohamed felt desperately alone. Then one of her friends gave her a jolt of reality.

"You think you are the only Somali mother in Ottawa with a son in jail?" Mohamed recalled her friend saying. "Go down to Courtroom 5 at 1: 30 p.m. any day and just sit there. You will see."

Mohamed and a friend went to the Elgin Street courthouse, sat on a bench in Courtroom No. 5 and watched. Men being held at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road were making court appearances via live video feed. Mohamed couldn't believe her eyes. Most of the men were visible minorities, and many of those were Somali.

"It looked like all the Somali boys in Ottawa were at Innes Road," she said. "Theft, possession of a weapon, breach of probation. Some of them as young as 18, fresh, slim, handsome boys. It made me say, 'My God, what is going on with us?' "

The 2006 census found almost 8,000 Ottawa residents identified themselves as having Somali ethnic origin, although the community is said to number closer to 10,000. It's a very young community: while roughly one-third of Ottawa's total population is younger than 24 years old, more than half of the city's Somali community is under 24.

Mohamed would be the first to say the vast majority of Somali youth -like her other four children -are living irreproachable lives, studying, working, raising families. But that moment in the courtroom brought home to her something that could not be denied: The percentage of young men of Somali heritage in detention is significantly greater than their representation in the general population.

Some of those in trouble with the law are still grappling with growing up in a war zone, while some are Canadian-born, but struggled in school and dropped out. Most of them have absent fathers and overworked mothers and grew up in some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. Somali community groups have supported teenagers with homework clubs and youth programs, and social services agencies have been trying to make inroads, too. At that moment in the courtroom, though, Mohamed and her friend decided it was time for mothers to step up as a group. It was the beginning of the Canadian Somali Mothers Association.

Word spread quickly. Someone knew a woman in Overbrook whose son was facing charges; someone else knew a few mothers in Kanata, and so on. Civil servants, cleaners, social workers, day-care providers and stay-at-home mothers, they all had sons in trouble ("The girls," Mohamed says, "are thriving. The boys, they're adrift.") Meetings in Mohamed's basement and local restaurants helped to peel back the shame.

"We realized we have to advocate, talk openly about it as mothers, to be able to say, 'My son is in jail and I need support,'" Mohamed says. "Each time we got together, we realized we had issues to raise, that the subject has to come out."

The women began to map out a plan to support youths already in the justice system and to prevent the young ones from ending up there. They met with officers from the Ottawa Police Service to learn about youth and crime, and met service agencies working with youths in trouble with the law. They visited the jails where their sons are being held: the William E. Hay Youth Centre, a secure custody facility for 12-to 17-year-olds being detained or serving sentences, and the OttawaCarleton Detention Centre.

The Somali experience in Ottawa echoes that of newcomers from decades past. Jane Fjeld, associate executive director of the Youth Services Bureau, says that as successive waves of immigrants build lives in Ottawa, the YSB finds that for each new group "there's a period of time when they and their families need greater support in understanding how to navigate through the system. That was no different when the Somali community started immigrating in greater numbers."

The Somali mothers have become an important resource for the Hay, Fjeld said.

"They were very important to us in better understanding their cultural needs and modifying our programming to suit their needs," Fjeld said. The mothers group now visits regularly, which Fjeld says "reinforces for these young men that they're not alone in the system and there are people outside of the Hay who care about them."

While the mothers were impressed with the amount of education, training and counselling offered at the Hay Centre, they became deeply concerned about conditions at Innes Road.

"We don't pretend they're all innocent, but we want them to have something to do while they're in there," Mohamed said. "It's overcrowded, and they have nothing. They come out with a record and everything they learned in a negative environment. No one will hire them and the only thing they can do is go back in."

The mothers also took a close look at the education system and found it wanting. They could see that most of the boys went to schools in lowincome neighbourhoods, where there were few to zero visible-minority teachers for a highly diverse population, and students underperformed on standardized tests.

The mothers began lobbying school board trustees to pay attention to cultural issues, to increase recruitment of minority teachers, and to retain the multicultural liaison program, which provides counsellors to help immigrant parents and their children navigate the school system.

"When we ask the school board about low test scores, they tell us it's because there are so many lowincome families, so many parents without university degrees, or homes where English is the second language," Mohamed said. "We find that insulting: I don't have a university degree, but I am educating my children. Nobody expects these children to succeed. So we tell mothers, 'Get involved in the education of your children, meet the teachers, and when you see trouble, call for help, speak out.'"

Nancy Worsfold of Crime Prevention Ottawa, the city's crime-reduc-tion agency, says the Canadian Somali Mothers Association is filling an important role in a newcomer community.

"When you have a young person going off the rails, it's difficult enough for a Canadian-born, university-educated, moneyed Englishspeaker to ensure their child gets the best possible services. It's terribly difficult if you are relying on patchy translation, cultural gaps in knowledge, and differences in accessing services because of lack of transportation and money," said Worsfold, who has advised Mohamed and others in the group.

Their work hasn't been without controversy. Mohamed says there has been some whispering backlash from men in the Somali community, unhappy with the community's dirty laundry being on full display. Then Mohamed ruffled feathers last December, when she criticized a seminar organized by community activist Farah Aw Osman, who has worked with Somali youth for many years. Aw Osman wanted to raise awareness of the potential for local youth to be attracted to radical Islamic movements abroad. The Somali mothers issued a news release critical of the conference for further stigmatizing Somali youth, objecting in particular to the artwork on the press release: the silhouettes of three young man brandishing automatic weapons.

"A Somali youth gets two labels by the rest of society," Mohamed said. "Either he's a gang member, dealing drugs, or he's a terrorist. Even the ones who have success and graduate from university, they get stopped by the RCMP, or they can't find work and end up living in their parent's basement."

Aw Osman, who says he changed the poster art work in response to community requests, said he was upset by the criticism from Mohamed, especially since he expected the two groups would work together, not at cross-purposes.

"I asked her, 'Are you denying youth radicalization within our community?' She said, 'No.' 'Are you opposing efforts to make the community more proactive and raise the level of awareness?' Again, 'No,'" Aw Osman said. "I don't get where they are coming from."

For Mohamed, it is simple.

"I came here for my children, I wanted to save them this endless horror of fighting in Somalia," Mohamed said. "I thought here they could be someone, regardless of clans or fighting. But here there is another kind of war, where they are marginalized and they have to fight so many labels."

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