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Young Somali ‘leaders’ make strides with police

Etobicoke Guardian
Friday, November 02, 2012
by Cynthia Reason

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“You’ve got to take steps to get where you want.”

That simple lesson, learned in high school, is one 24-year-old Zach Omar applied on Wednesday night when he and a group of Somali-Canadian youth from Etobicoke’s Dixon Road neighbourhood joined with police officers for a community walkabout.

The Halloween outing, said Const. Roger Mayers, was the culminating event of a two-week Somali Youth Leadership/Mentoring Initiative, funded by Proaction Cops and Kids and aimed at building better relationships between police and Somali youth.

“Basically, we met with between 15 to 25 young men aged 16 to 20 from the Somali-Canadian community over the last two weeks and spoke with them about a number of issues – from crime in the community, to the difference between Somali culture and Canadian culture, and the struggles youth are facing with juggling those two cultures,” Mayers said, noting that officers from 23 Division and TAVIS were involved.
“We also did a lot of talks on leadership and mentoring...they didn’t realize that by stepping up and coming out to the program they were already leaders.”

Mayers praised Omar, whose Youth 4 Youth initiative helped organize the Somali Youth Leadership/Mentoring Initiative sessions and walkabout, for being just the kind of leader kids in Etobicoke need to look up to.

Omar’s history of community involvement, he said, began in high school with a complaint to his principal that there weren’t enough recreational opportunities in his neighbourhood for teens to partake in after school.

Hearing Omar out, that principal challenged him to create a program for youth, and if he was successful, he’d be given access to the high school gym to run it.

“Zach took the challenge and actually did a sporting event, which took place in his school gym as promised. That successful program led to his motivation to run other programs and to become more and more involved in the community,” Mayer explained.

Omar’s most recent endeavor was to assist Toronto police with bridging the gap between its officers and Somali youth – a divide accentuated by the recent spate of murders of young Somali men (six have been killed on Toronto streets since June) and the community’s reluctance to come forward with information.
“When they’re hurting, people in the community feel they can’t lean on the police,” said Omar, adding, “I’ve met a lot of officers who are standup guys.”

And that’s precisely the realization police hope more youth in Toronto’s Somali community will come to as a result of the Somali Youth Leadership/Mentoring Initiative, Mayers said.
The young men who participated, he added, risked being labelled ‘snitches’ by their peers for simply speaking with officers.

“They had to deal with a lot of peer pressure, and the walkabout was the biggest of the peer pressure – these boys stepped up and they walked side by side with police...to show their peers that this is okay to do,” he said, noting that police didn’t ask any of the participants for any information about any crimes.
“We want to build relationships with these boys in the community first and foremost – that’s the priority here. A trusting relationship is far more important before we move forward, and that’s what this was all about.”


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