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A search for identity


The search for identity has taken Abubakar N. Kasim from refugee camps in Africa to Toronto's Pearson Airport. It is a quest he still believes he is on.
Photograph by : Mohamed Sheikh Nor, The Associated Press

 A foreign-born Canadian wonders what he has to do to be considered a Canadian -- if that is possible

Abubakar N. Kasim, Citizen Special
Published: Thursday, February 08, 2007

TORONTO -- Once, while I was working at my job at Toronto's Pearson International Airport as a customer service representative, a woman approached me to inquire about the whereabouts of her grandmother who was scheduled to arrive in Toronto hours earlier.

The young and frustrated lady asked whether I could check the flight manifest and tell her if her grandmother had boarded the aircraft or if she was on a different one.

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I politely explained that passenger information was not given out. I could only give her a list of the flight numbers that were to arrive that day.

The woman then angrily said, "Can I speak to someone from this country, please?"

Since that unfriendly encounter, I have become hesitant to believe what my passport says under the nationality section. Despite receiving Canadian citizenship and holding a Canadian passport, I question whether I am indeed a Canadian. What does "Canadian" really mean? Is there only one Canadian identity, or are there more than one connotation?

My own questions about identity did not start in Canada. I belonged to a visible minority in Somalia, the country of my birth. Our ancestors, mainly from Persia and the Arab world, settled in the seaboard town of Barawa, about 250 kilometres south of Mogadishu, in the year 10 AD.

We are different from other Somalis. We have our own dialect known as "Chimini," which is similar to the Swahili language. And the majority of our people are lighter skinned.

Despite the 2,000 years we lived in Somalia, we were still considered foreigners. When civil war erupted in early 1990s, our beautiful city was occupied and terrorized by successive warring factions and armed bandits, each more savage than its predecessors. The residents of Barawa were subjected to rape, murder, robbery and torture.

Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations have documented some of the atrocities committed against people who did harm to no one.

When the Islamic Courts took over the city, worshippers were beaten because they did not follow the strict rules of Wahhabism, a form of Islam widely followed in Saudi Arabia.

My family and I fled in 1993 from a country that was no longer welcoming. It was a difficult choice, but there was no other option but to search for our identity in another place that we could call home.

I boarded a ship headed to Kenya. People were packed like sardines. It was a horrifying journey. Almost 1,000 individuals occupied a vessel designed to take no more than 300. There was no place to manoeuvre. People were urinating and vomiting everywhere. Children were crying and elders and women were pleading for help, but there was no one around to do anything for anyone. There was nothing to eat and no water to drink. Seasick passengers on the upper level of the boat were vomiting into a small hole on the floor. They probably didn't know or didn't care to find out that the waste was landing on the people who were jammed onto another deck below.

Although Kenya welcomed us, it was still obvious that it was not ready or willing to accept us as its own. We had great difficulty travelling about the city of Mombasa, as we were regularly confronted by police demanding kitambulisho, an identity card. You either gave them some money or you disappeared.

So we continued to search for a new home and identity, knocking at the doors of other countries where we thought we could be accepted. We had great hopes that one of the rich Gulf States would open its heart to us. It would not be difficult to live there, we thought, because there we could freely practice our faith, as Islam was the dominant religion and the majority of our people spoke Arabic.

The Gulf States not only slammed their doors on our faces, they deported back to Somalia those who had managed to sneak in despite the fact that the civil war was raging in Somalia.

I thought my quest had finally ended when I landed in Canada. Soon I was considered one of the citizens of this land. There was no difference between me and any other person who identified himself as a Canadian. I had convinced myself that I found the treasure that I had been looking for so many years.

For the first time I was in a country I could freely claim to belong to. Under "Nationality" on my passport, I have Canadian -- no hyphen attached.

However, the young woman at the airport made me question again whether I really found my true identity. Is there a such thing as a Canadian? Can a person be a Muslim and a Canadian at the same time? Am I as Canadian as Stephen Harper or am I little bit lower on the ladder of Canadian identity? What does it mean when a person identifies himself as a Canadian?

Why am I always asked where I am "originally" from even though I identify myself as a Canadian? What about my children and their children? Will they be considered children of this land, or will they be questioned as myself?

After all these years of searching for my identity, I now realize one fact. An identity is something that is difficult to achieve. It cannot be bought by gold. It can also not be achieved by merely having a passport.

Abubakar N. Kasim is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

This article was originally published in  Ottawa Citizen  on Feb 08, 2007



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