Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you? Helped form who you are today? Your parents, friends, school?
I grew up in Mogadishu in the 70s and 80s, amidst a large and happy extended family. My parents were both hard working professionals. My father was a judge and a religious scholar. He was a quiet, well-respected man, whose opinions were sought in both public and family affairs. My mother was a successful business woman who worked long hours and was very involved in community life. She was well-known for her business ethics and for her charities. Despite not having formal education, my mother built a very successful business; and used the wealth she created to support a large family and to give to community members in need.
My mother was also big on education. We had many learning activities beyond the normal school workload. She insisted that we attend weekend and evening classes that had nothing to do with school. She paid for foreign tutors – who could not speak Somali – to come to our home and teach us English, even though that was not required at school. As a side note, I should mention that my generation started school in a new era when the Somali language became the core official language with which other disciplines were taught. This was a national pride – we were proud to no longer use the language of the colonizers. My mother’s commitment to ensure that we were proficient with key international languages continues to serve us well. My mother would also give us money to attend lectures, see educational films, and be a part of study groups. Her efforts paid off – my siblings and I were all “A” students growing up.
Another aspect of my childhood was growing up in a large family. We were nine children and we often had relatives from other cities staying at our house. And, we grew up with many cousins – the children of my paternal uncles – who lived in the same neighborhood. Our house was always full of people, which was a lot of fun. I also have many happy memories of neighbors gathering in our courtyard in late afternoons, for tea and catch-ups.
From my parents, I have learned the value of hard work, the importance of serving the community and supporting those most in need, and the ethics of coming through one’s responsibilities. These values continue to guide me both personally and professionally. In addition, the many hours of studying beyond the normal school hours have taught me discipline and inculcated in me a strong sense of curiosity to explore and discover about a multitude of topics. I never stop learning. I like to have personal learning projects to educate myself on things that intrigue me. These projects can be as varied as life itself, and may include mastering a new recipe or researching to clarify for myself international political dynamics that are often unclear in our daily news stories.
What is your educational background?
I have a master’s degree in economics from the University of Ottawa – with a focus on economic policy and international relations; and a diploma in public administration and general management from the Somali Institute of Public Administration. I also have a diploma in software engineering.
Could you describe your job as Director, Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership? What challenges do you face on this job and how do you address them?
My work is mostly about building connections – connections between ideas, organizations, leaders and sectors. As the director of OLIP, my role is to promote common understanding and to build cross sectoral collaborations to succeed in OLIP’s mandate. Our mandate is to build local capacity to attract, settle, and integrate newcomers. The core functions of the OLIP Secretariat, which I lead, is four-fold:
- to create a partnership of key organizations in Ottawa that affect the settlement and integration of newcomers;
- to facilitate the development of a common vision and shared priorities – these are outlined in what we call the Ottawa Immigration Strategy (OIS).
- to create shared knowledge and awareness about the myriad of issues affecting immigrants’ integration; and
- to create and maintain a mechanism through which OLIP partners can collaborate across sectors to move our community toward the goals of the OIS.
In the short 7 years of OLIP’s life, we have accomplished a lot in terms of new approaches and solutions that already make a difference in how we welcome newcomers and how we support their integration in the Ottawa community. Our partnership is 60 organizations strong, including the City of Ottawa, universities and colleges, the four school boards, settlement agencies, health and social service providers, employers and employer associations, regional planning bodies, policy and funding partners, and civic groups. Having such a large network of organizations in the OLIP partnership has been key to our success. Newcomers’ integration into our community, with all its complexities, requires on-going collaborative planning, leadership, and action across jurisdictions and sectors.
Despite our many successes, however, our work is not without challenges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our key challenges are funding, community connections, and political leadership. Our work produces innovative ideas to address persistent challenges. However, the scale of the solutions we are building typically falls short of the scale of the issues being addressed. To succeed at the right scale of known needs requires more funding and political leadership. We are very conscious of this challenge and we are beginning to think of new types of engagement that will help us overcome them.
All that said, I am enjoying my work. It is very satisfying to work with partners and to facilitate ways to leverage each other’s’ work to optimize our collective community results.
You are one of a small number of people in the Black community who volunteer their time for the well-being of others. Can you comment on why it is so difficult to get members of our community to give a little of their time and expertise to help those in need?
In my experience, there is a lot of volunteering within the black community. Many people are giving their time and resources to community causes. However, the volunteering of Black community members and many other minority groups remains invisible. There is also a lot of giving on a private, relational basis to those in need. This giving, volunteering and general community development is not visible to the wider community. In my view, there is a need for Ottawa’s Black Community to find ways to celebrate the generosity of our people, to bring attention to what is already being done by black volunteers and to tell the myriad of stories of giving and community building that is already underway.
It is important that community building be done on our terms. Eurocentric definitions of volunteering tend to miss many community efforts. Much of the giving that takes place in our community will not show-up in statistical measures that use tax receipts as indicators of giving, for example. Most people I know do not ask for tax receipts, and in fact may be opposed to anything that counts their giving. We need new measures, new stories and more capacity for our media to broadcast the often successful grass roots work that takes place. If we had the right measure that can capture how our community members typically volunteer and give, we may discover that we volunteer more than the average levels within the wider community.
There appears to be a divide on one level between Black francophone and Anglophone communities, and on another level between people from continental Africa and those from the Caribbean. These discrete groups often operate separately and rarely hold events together or collaborate in joint projects for their mutual benefit? Do you agree with this perception and if so what can be done to increase collaboration among our various community groups?
I agree with this perception. I also see that we have improved in recent years, although we still have a long way to go. In my opinion, collaboration is easiest where there are either natural affinities or opportunities that aid mutual discoveries of subgroups of the black community. Language, culture or ethnicity, and common experiences are all affinities that make it easier for people to work together. We do have the common experience of everyday, anti-black racism. But we are diverse in many respects, such as the official languages we choose to live with in Canada, cultural background, history, and religion. Our diversity is certainly an important strength, but to leverage it, we have to exert a conscious effort to create new opportunities to build relationships across networks and affinity groups. We can learn from each other; and we can become a real force that can effectively confront our challenges, if we work together. If we do not strive for connections across our differences, we risk falling – and staying – behind.
Looking at Ottawa’s Black community, what do you see as our biggest challenges? Crime, unemployment, school drop outs, other? How do we overcome them?
I see school dropout rates as our biggest challenge. Education is a key emancipation for prosperous future. Success in education will pave the way for intergenerational mobility, participation, and belonging. If black children do not do well in school, it becomes very difficult for them to secure good jobs; it puts them at risk of poverty for a long time, or even worse it leads them to succumb to negative peer pressures that in turn lead them to problems with the law. The black community cannot afford to overlook the challenge of school dropout rates. An important way to address black students’ success is our civic participation. We need more black trustees, more black teachers, more engagement of black parents, and mobilization of community resources to assist the students. We also need to also ensure that black youth have strong role models and are excited about their futures. We can do this if we work together as a community for there is a lot we need to overcome.
Canada is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary as a nation. In the years since you’ve been in Ottawa, have you seen the situation of Blacks as changed for the better: more access to jobs, social inclusion etc. Do we have reason to celebrate alongside other Canadians?
We have plenty of reasons to celebrate alongside other Canadians, if not more! We do face many challenges, but Canada’s / Ottawa’s black community is strong and vibrant. Black Canadians have contributed to our country’ successes in countless ways. And, this, despite the formidable challenges of anti-black racism our community faces. It is clear that our community is resilient. There are flourishing businesses and, selfless volunteers producing amazing results. However, many of our accomplishments remain untold. Magazines like the Black Ottawa Scene are important in filling this gap.
Do you have any hobbies or pastimes?
I like reading and I enjoy learning new things. When I have enough time, I also enjoy doing yoga and spending time with friends and family. Alas, these pleasures are becoming rare as demand on my time increases at work.
What has been your biggest achievement and what was your biggest challenge? In your work, family life, social life, other?
I already spoke about my work. In my personal life, my biggest achievement is to have committed to study the Quran. I am learning so much. It is not well known that the Quran is full of history, ethics, logic, and guidance for life in all things. I wish I had started it earlier, I am a relatively new student of the Quran and it is so great and surprising to discover more depth in it, all the time.
A challenge for me is to achieve work-life balance. I tend to over commit, and then I feel the weight of the responsibility and strive to come through by working more hours. While I am Ok with some over commitment, as I grow older, I am beginning to feel the need to strike more balance so I can have more room in my days for the pleasures of family and friends.
If you had to live your life all over again, is there anything you would do differently? Since I did not answer this question, do you mind removing it? I do not want to come across as closed person.
There are a number of things I would do differently, but I am not prepared to share them publicly.
Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?
I have a message for Ottawa’s black community. Let’s connect more across our diversity and work together to help address key issues of anti-black racism. We have an important momentum as a community, and we have many bright people who want to make a difference.