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Instead of 'just burying' its young people, Edmonton Somali community identifies root causes of violence

More from Dave Lazzarino
Monday, July 04, 2016

Somali Cultural Society of Edmonton president Jibril Ibrahim BLOOM, DAVID / POSTMEDIA

A report looking into what caused a spike in violent crime in Edmonton’s Somali community a decade ago suggests a proactive approach could help avoid a repeat. But funding for that approach lies in limbo.

“What we are looking for here is action; we don’t want just words,” said Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Cultural Society of Edmonton, a mostly volunteer-run group working out of the Centre for Advancement of African Canadians in Alberta.

Issues in the community extend back to the mid-1990s when the Somali government collapsed, sending refugees around the world.

Many spent their formative years in refugee camps — with no access to education — and some even had children of their own.

Those who came to Canada found themselves in a holding pattern as the federal government put them on waiting lists for immigration status and unable to access services.

Those who dropped out of school and were kept out of the job market by language barriers were obvious recruits for gangs.

Ibrahim, a professional engineer by trade who volunteers with the society, said the result can be seen in the nearly 50 young people in Edmonton who have died as a result of violent crimes since 2004.

“We have taken an interest in figuring out what are the root causes, instead of just burying them and burying them and burying them,” he said.

With a grant from Alberta Justice, they began a year-long study in 2014, interviewing people whose loved ones had died, people who were put in prison for some of those crimes and also young people who managed to escape the trend and find success by graduating from college or university.

Ibrahim says some factors began to surface.

For starters, roughly a quarter of those interviewed were from homes with single parents, many of whom worked multiple jobs and had little time for child supervision.

“When I started my dangerous lifestyle, I distanced myself from my brother, who raised me, because I didn’t want them to get hurt,” said one interview subject named Hassan. “I chose the wrong path in part because I did not get a good role model, but it was my choice.”

Aside from family, other challenges identified were school, community and society.

The Edmonton trends have begun to subside, but are on the rise in Toronto. Ibrahim said the pro-active approach recommended by the study could be used anywhere.

The report has been circulated to all three levels of government with some suggestions for change — among them, developing a permanent staff position for someone to work out of the society’s newly opened south office. That person would act as a go-between for kids, schools and parents, with a specific focus on integrating Somali immigrants.

Ibrahim said a pilot program for parents ran for one semester and was successful, but could not continue after funding dried up.

A request for Family and Community Support Services funding received a letter of intent, but when the budget came down, the provincial government failed to deliver the money.

Ibrahim said it would cost about $387,000 a year for three years to run the programs he has in mind. Beyond that, he said, the community will be able to pass on the knowledge to subsequent generations of immigrants.

“I can understand the economic situation we’re in,” he said. “There’s a lack of resources these days. But not acting has a higher cost than acting.”

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