In conversation with Ikram Jama, Multicultural Liaison Officer Program Manager

Ikram Jama

Ikram Jama

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

I was born in Somalia, I am the middle child of seven siblings and the thing that stands out about my childhood was being surrounded by extended family and living in a neighborhood where almost everyone knew me. In the neighborhood I grew up in there were many members of my extended family. I remember as young as 6 years old walking to visit my grandmother or an aunt or other relative’s homes on my own. I felt very safe and protected in that neighborhood.

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

 A lot people influenced my life over the years including my parents; however, it was my maternal grandmother, who raised me for the five years of my life that had a great influence in my life at a young age. By listening to my grandmother and her friends as a young child, I developed a good knowledge and an appreciation of Somali culture. She taught me about the Somali clan structure, and my genealogy. The Somali clan system is patrilineal and decent is traced through the male line. So by the time I was 5 years old, I could trace my lineage from my father to 30 grandfathers. I also learned from my grandmother a commitment to family and community, and that life always presents us with challenges and that one should expect these challenges and believe that they can overcome them. She was very kind to her family and those who needed, her but at the same time very strong and proud – I looked up to her a lot.  I used some of the values she taught me to survive the refugee experience when the civil-war erupted in my country in 1980’s.

Can you describe your journey that brought you to Canada?

I came to Canada as a refugee in 1989. This was a time when many Somalis were coming to Canada as refugees feeling the civil-war in Somalia. It was a challenging experience and for me there were many valuable lessons in going through such an experience.

Could you describe your day job as Multicultural Liaison Manager?

I have been the Manager of this wonderful and innovative program (the Multicultural Liaison Officer Program) for the last 5 years. This program was designed by the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO) in 1991 to meet the settlement needs of newcomer families in our schools. Since then, the program has been replicated across the country and is used today as a best practice model. The Multicultural Liaison Officers (MLO’s) provide settlement services to newcomer families in schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and in the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB). The MLOs also work with school administrations to support the needs of newcomer families in the schools and to creating welcoming school environment for refugee and immigrant families.

You’ve been working with immigrants for many years and you are a first generation immigrant yourself. What do you see as the greatest challenge in getting them settled in Canada and Ottawa in particular?

Immigrants and refugees face numerous challenges as they settle in their new country. Learning the language (if they don’t speak English or French at the time of arrival), getting employment, having their previous credentials and skills recognized and working in their professions and building social networks are the obvious ones.  However, while both groups are newcomers to Canada, immigrants and refugees face different challenges and settlement programs are designed to meet their unique needs.  One major challenge that we, as a community and service providers, are working hard to support, is to create more inclusive environment for all our newcomers so they can have access to services and opportunities

You are also a leading member of the Somali Mothers’ organization. Can you tell us about this organization? What have been your successes and are there any challenges that your group is struggling with?

I am not a leading member but a volunteer with the Canadian Somali Mothers’ Association. This is a grass-roots organization that creates forums for Somali-Canadian parents to exchange information and knowledge on how to support and advocate for the needs of Somali-Canadian youth. The Canadian Somali Mothers, in collaboration with many groups and organizations, also advocate for the creation of more inclusive institutions and systems. Since its creation the CSMA has organized many forums for the Somali-Canadian community, has worked relentlessly to engage different levels of government in the issues that affect the community, such as employment, safer communities, and support for youth who get involved with the criminal justice system. The association has been very effective in undertaking the above mentioned tasks with support from the Somali community and volunteers.

Recent events have placed Muslims in the global spotlight with the recent terror attacks in various parts of the world. How is the Ottawa Muslim community in Ottawa responding to these tragedies? Have you personally faced any negative reactions or backlash as a result?

I think this is a very challenging time for Muslims around the world. Certainly the current global events have contributed to certain perceptions of the Muslim religion. Because of this, islamophobia is on the rise and that should be a big concern to all of us. Having said that, the Muslim community in Ottawa is doing very well in engaging with the issues that affect their communities and neighborhoods, and working very closely with many non-Muslim allies in staying committed to the issues they care about, contributing and supporting positive change in their communities.

 Some segments of the community have a perception that Somali people tend to be a close-knit community, associating only with their own kind, focusing only on activities that would benefit them, and rarely partnering or collaborating with other black community groups. They point out, for instance, that it is rare to see a Somali married to a non-Somali. Is this perception based on reality or is it just a myth?

Most members of the Somali community in Ottawa (those who are not born in Canada) arrived in the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s. They came under a similar circumstances and largely depended on each other during the early years of their settlement. Also, as in many other African countries, extended family and kinship are very important.  As a community, they had to deal with particular challenges that had to do with their refugee experience and the challenges they faced as a new community.  In the early years when I was a student in university, we did a lot of volunteer work with our community to meet some of the emerging needs. For example, there was a high need to provide academic support to elementary and high school students, so homework clubs were set up, to support the integration of the youth. In Ottawa, university students established an organization dedicated to the needs of Somali youth – The Somali Youth Association; later to meet the need of the whole family, the Somali Centre for Women, Youth, and Community Development, and the Somali Centre for Family Services were established.  At that time a lot of us sent money back home every month to support the people that were still in the country, so Somalis set up their own money transfers (Hawalas) to deliver money to a country that no longer had a functioning banking system, Therefore, it is no surprise that others would see them as a community that focuses only inward and not willing to collaborate with others. But the fact was that the Somalis were really trying to build a community and meet the challenges they faced. However, even during this period many of us were involved in other black community issues and organizations. When I was in university, I was an executive member of the Somali University Student Association, as well as the African Student Association. After graduation, one of the first groups I and some of my friends joined was the Congress of Black Women, the Ontario chapter. While there will always be many who focus to work on issues that affect the Somali community, there are also those who are involved in many aspects of the black community in Ottawa and in our larger Ottawa community. With regards to marriage, people marry who they fall in love with, so it is mostly a personal choice. Also, many Somali Canadians who were born and grew up here are actually intermarrying with many different cultures.

Outside of your involvement with the Somali women, do you have any other outside interests or hobbies?

 My hobbies are reading, and talking long-walks. I am also involved in many other issues, committees etc..but the one I like to mention here is SAHAN-LITERARY FORUM which I am a co-founder – Sahan Literary Forum is a platform to promote books about the Horn of Africa and create spaces for inclusive, engaging and uplifting conversations. The forum focuses on books written about the Horn of Africa, whether by authors with roots in that region or by others.

You are one of very few people within the black community who volunteer for the well-being of others. How would you explain why it is so difficult to get people to commit to volunteering, to give back, so that those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged can prosper. I am thinking of those who are well established in jobs or businesses, who can readily invest a few hours each week or month to mentor our youth, serve on not-for- profit organizations and so help our community move forward.

Many of my friends and family members are volunteers, so I don’t share the view that black community members don’t volunteer. Also, many people in the black community are actually always volunteering and helping their community members – they may not call it volunteering, but they are highly involved in their neighborhoods, faith groups etc.

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between Anglophone and francophone communities. On another front, there appears to be a divide between people from the Caribbean and people from continental Africa. Do you agree with this perspective and if so, what can be done to remedy this divide?

From my perspective we are very diverse – the black community in Ottawa. So I would not say we are divided but I would say we are diverse.

Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago? Do you note any differences between progress by black women compared to black men?

Yes, I have seen many positive changes in the black community in Canada. I see major changes in Ottawa’s black population – I moved to Ottawa from Toronto in the 1990’s for university and at that time the community was still young but now I see a very mature community, with diverse professional backgrounds, who are active in many aspects of our city. Of course, there could always be improvements but I really think we have made good progress the last fifteen years.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa. They suggest that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

Of course we have some issues to work on when it comes to gender-relations and that we share with many communities in Ottawa. However, I don’t share the perspective that black men do not respect black women.

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenges and how do we resolve them? What are our strengths?

I think our greatest challenge has been to overcome some of the historical inequities that black communities have dealt with and their effect on the present. I think we need to continue to stay engaged, build alliances, and insist on creating a Canadian environment that is aware and works to eliminate racial discrimination and all other discrimination and inequities, that negatively impact members of our communities. I think the strength of the black communities in Canada is their resilience, their sense of community and their engagement in issues that matter.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

I really am glad this online magazine, Black Ottawa Scene exists and connects many in the black community. I am proud to be a member of this diverse and strong community and send greetings to all the readers and supporters of Black Ottawa Scene. Thank you for the opportunity to share my views.


Photo credit: YNA Photography

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