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'He's a bridge builder': Ali Abukar helps newcomers thrive in Saskatoon

Friday July 3, 2020
By Nykole King

Ali Abukar, CEO of Open Door Society, is a supporter of Black Lives Matter and says everyone needs to speak up against anti-Black racism.
Saskatoon Open Door Society’s CEO Ali Abukar in front of the organization’s building in downtown Saskatoon. MICHELLE BERG / SASKATOON STARPHOENIX

Ali Abukar has long dreamed of running an organization to help immigrants and refugees. He just never through it would happen so soon.

Abukar, 38, was appointed chief executive officer of the Saskatoon Open Door Society (SODS) five years ago. The non-profit organization helps newcomers and works to make Saskatoon a more diverse, inclusive community.

It’s a perfect fit for Abukar, who is passionate about anti-racism and believes it’s necessary to work toward a safe, equitable society.

“It is up to everyone to speak up and support those people who experience racism, discrimination and injustice and intolerance in our community,” he says.

“That is the responsibility of everyone, whether they have a role in a position of power or even someone who is in their own individual position of power.”

Abukar was born in Somalia. A civil war, violence and persecution from warring groups caused him to flee to Egypt, where he lived for about a decade. There, he did an undergraduate degree in business administration, but he couldn’t see himself pursuing a career in business.

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He later attended American University in Cairo, where he learned about forced migrants and refugees. He spent some time doing a practicum in Uganda, where he spoke with people living in refugee camps to learn abut their experiences.

Abukar’s cousin, who lived in Ontario, eventually sponsored him to come to Canada as a refugee. While pursuing a masters of social work at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, he learned about the Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee, the people who traditionally occupied the lands on which the university is located. He delved into the deep, complicated history of colonialism and oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada and developed a passion for building relationships with Indigenous people.

After his masters, Abukar moved to Saskatoon in 2013 to work for the Open Door Society as a settlement support worker for children in schools.

Then, in 2015, the top job opened up.

Abukar said he was hesitant to apply for the CEO position because he lacked experience, but other people encouraged him to throw his hat in the ring. “Wisdom is not by age,” one colleague told him. The words resonated with Abukar and he knew he could do more for the organization as leader.

Abukar took on the CEO role during the Syrian refugee crisis, which led to an influx of refugees in Saskatoon. At that time, there was public debate about whether the refugees would be productive members of society.

Abukar’s unique background made him ideal for the position. While not all immigrant and refugee experiences are the same, he says having first-hand experience of living as a refugee and then resettling in Canada helps him because he can understand the struggles his clients are going through.

“I knew there were challenges ahead at the time, but I knew what kind of a leader I wanted to be and I used those skills,” Abukar says.

Former SODS board member Asit Sarkar says Abukar was an example of how refugees can be successful contributors to the community, that welcoming refugees can be “a two-way process,” benefiting both the refugees and the community.

Sarkar says the Open Door Society’s reach has grown under Abukar’s leadership. What Sarkar appreciates most about Abukar’s work is that he helps newcomers thrive by creating programs that let them become engaged in the community.

“He’s a bridge builder. He builds bridges with employers, with other community members, he builds bridges with the members of our Indigenous communities,” Sarkar says. “He’s passionate about immigrants.”

As head of the Open Door Society, Abukar oversees its programs and finances, directing the organization to meet its strategic goals and build relationships with community partners.

He says he is proud of the work he’s done to foster relationships between newcomers and Cree and Metis people, the traditional people of Treaty 6 Territory, and of setting the groundwork for a women’s entrepreneurship project that will provide resources and mentorship for new businesses.

Abukar also says he’s happy with the work he’s done to be responsive to clients’ needs — for example, by offering services online because of COVID-19 restrictions.

He says the work he does is guided by listening to his staff and his clients.

“We have a responsibility to those people who are saying, ‘We experience this,’ to acknowledge that and take action where we can — and where we can’t, (to) stand in solidarity of those demands for something to be done about these experiences and behaviours. We must strive together and continue that work, keeping each other accountable for these things,” Abukar says.

April Sora, the City of Saskatoon’s immigration, diversity and inclusion consultant, has worked with Abukar since he started with SODS. She has been impressed with how he leads with a “steady and calm manner,” she says.

“Ali is very skilled at so many things. He’s able to respond to almost anything that people ask of him. He does presentations for the chamber of commerce, for human rights organizations, he does presentations and speaks at rallies for advocacy.”

Abukar has recently been using his voice to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and was one of the speakers at the June 13 rally in downtown Saskatoon.

As a Black man living in Saskatoon, he thinks carefully before wearing a hoodie out in public because he worries some people may reduce him to racial stereotypes in their minds, he says.

“Not everybody knows me in the community or who I am, so if I am in a store, I am another Black man. If I am wearing a hoodie, I may be followed around or questioned.”

Such behaviour “hurts more” and “it’s even worse when it comes from institutions,” such as people working with the police, school system or health care, because they hold public trust, he says.

Bringing awareness to anti-Black racism reminds him of previous movements calling for social change, including Idle No More, which aims to recognize Indigenous sovereignty. He says he hopes the momentum of BLM is maintained and that people “witness what is going on and what has happened for a long time” in Canada.

It takes humility and compassion to acknowledge systemic issues of racism and oppression, says Abukar, but it is important.

“These conversations are not easy to have, they are not comfortable to have, but they are important. Everybody has blind spots, and if we don’t question it, we are overtaken by that autopilot of unconscious bias, and that’s dangerous. There are people who are ignorant, and that’s even more dangerous.”


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