In conversation with Mohamed Islam, Youth Outreach Worker

Mohamed Islam

Mohamed Islam

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 Mogadishu Somalia. My family fled Somalia when I was nine due to the civil war and chaos that broke out in early 1990 when rebels toppled then Somali president Mohamed Siyad. I still remember the day the war started, in fact my siblings and I were at an Islamic School, as we heard the heavy sounds of artillery. Our initial thought was “where are the fireworks coming from?” I specifically remember asking one of my teachers can we watch the fireworks. As I reflect now, I recall him just giving me a long stair amazed at my innocents. I still get goose pumps when I reflect on this as I look back. As the barrage of heavy artillery escalated, my mother came to pick us up from school and brought us home. As we got home I saw the worry on my mother’s face and that’s when I knew things were serious. My father was out of town on a business trip. My mother and all my six siblings slept in one room that night. We could hear heavy artillery throughout the night. Since my father wasn’t there and being the oldest male, I knew I had to step up to the plate and protect my family.

When we woke up the next day, we could hear chaos outside, neighbors were packing and getting ready to flee. My mother called her father who instructed her to pack what little she could and come to his house. We packed and walked to my grandfather’s house. This was the first time I walked that far. My mother and I took turns carrying my sister who was too young to walk. When we arrived at my grandfather’s house I thought we would only stay for a few days, however the civil war had reached my grandfather’s house. So once again, we were forced to flee to another city. We kept on fleeing from city to city, eventually arriving in neighboring Kenya.  After two years in Kenya, my parents found a way to send me abroad. As the eldest, I was selected to go. Despite being frightened, and seeing the look of uncertainty in my parent’s eyes, I somehow knew they didn’t have a better choice or option but to send me alone. From Kenya, I landed in Vienna. I stayed in Vienna with my aunt who then arranged a ticket to the USA where I stayed there few months. I then travelled to Canada by road, I ended up in Canada borders, where I claimed asylum as a minor.

I had zero knowledge prior to my arrival in Canada. The language barrier was a huge and the feeling of uncertainty was somewhat stressful. I truly felt disadvantaged in terms of social engagement. Those challenges inspired me to get into the field of social worker, so that newcomer youth and their families have some sort of support in their integration journey. These events were the most memorable amongst my childhood memories.

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

My parents and extended family have been the most influential people in my life

What is your educational background?

My educational background is Social Service Worker.

Could you describe your day job?

My day to day job entails providing a range of outreach services to individuals, families and groups to enhance and maintain youth functioning in the community. As a youth outreach worker, I meet youth in their environment they hang out in, to make sure they know about the wide range of programs and services available to them. The aim is to build confidence, provide opportunities to learn new skills and ultimately, work toward meaningful employment.

You are a prominent member of the Community and Police Action Committee (COMPAC) which brings together members of the Ottawa Police Service and representatives of the city’s minority groups. Can you describe any initiative COMPAC is involved in currently, its successes and challenges?

Among the many initiatives COMPAC undertakes are two equally important identified as a standing agenda. The two are somewhat interrelated. They are controversial and often generate passionate discussions. And that is primarily what COMPAC stand for, which is a venue where police and diverse communities including the aboriginals, come together to deepen the dialogue and inspire encouraging discussions about difficult issues, thus opening the way to positive change. Kudos to our police force for reaching out to the multicultural communities to provide their valuable input.

The two agenda items for COMPAC are:

A – The first issue is the street checks also known as carding. This is a very sensitive topic that produces passionate responses on all sides. COMPAC members were engaged in the early consultation phase. Given the importance of street checks, COMPAC community members met ahead of the consultation to adopt a unified position on this important topic. We reiterated the message that multicultural communities in Ottawa have long complained that they are frequently stopped, questioned, and searched by police.

The Ottawa Police Street Check Consultation was part of the Ontario government’s announcement to develop a new regulation to govern police interactions with members of the public. Soon after, the province of Ontario proposed two draft regulations which provided the framework around street check/carding. Given the level of urgency, COMPAC didn’t want this to be a missed opportunity. The aim was to put our creative minds to really work on a solution-based approach that will empower our police while addressing community concerns.

B- HR – Recruitment is the other identified regular agenda item for compac.  Diverse communities strongly believe that Ottawa Police Service is not doing enough to better reflect the multicultural face of Ottawa. I can tell you, that concern is a standing agenda item for us. The aim is to unpack so we could address where the gaps are.

Recent events have placed Muslims in the global spotlight with the recent terror attacks in Paris and the ongoing Boko Haram situation in Nigeria. How is the Ottawa Muslim community in Ottawa responding to these tragedies? Have you personally faced any negative reactions or backlash as a result?

The Paris attacks have definitely sparked some Islamophobic backlash. There have been a number of unexpectedly violent and severe incidents targeting Muslims here in Ottawa and across the country. Those concerns have been shared with our police force which in return assured the Muslim community in Ottawa that they are aware of the incidents and they are closely monitoring. I have heard some horror stories of Muslim women attacked and beaten. I personally haven’t experienced any problems. However, those committing hate crimes against the Muslims are not representative of the vast majority of Canadians, the same way those terrorist who are the enemies of humanity, do not represent Muslims. Islam means PEACE, so therefore, it’s incumbent on all Muslims to be compassionate.

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?

The Somali Community is a young community that is thriving in the Ottawa scene. Just like every new community to Canada, we have experienced our fair share of struggles. I can tell you, those struggles only fueled the ambitions of the Somali community who were determined to start a new life in Canada. Some of the challenges is attributed to trauma that was brought from Somalia. Somali youth are hit with a double –whammy of being black and Muslim. Somali-Canadian youth are having to navigate stuff other kids never have to deal with. That is where I and other Somali Youth workers come in so that appropriate connections are made before trouble starts. Despite the barriers they often face, including racism and stereotyping, young Somali-Canadians want to be fully part of Canada, which they see as they home. I’m extremely proud of the resilient of the Somali Community. This is a community that turns negative into positive.  We recently had a member of the Somali community elected as the first Somali MP. The community is slowly, but maturely finding its place in Canada. Of course, that doesn’t mean, there is no room for improvement. There are much work to be done in terms of moving the community forward.

The Somali community in Canada are the largest African migrants that came to Canada in recent years – particularly in the city of Ottawa – they are the largest black community in Ottawa – with significant contributions to our communities and to this city. Despite some challenges I would say the Somali community in Ottawa, which is a very young community – its history is yet to be written and has great potential. The Somali community is black and has been part of the larger black community since their arrival! Many of us in the universities belonged to the Somali Student Association, African and Black Canadian student associations as well we also participated in the Muslim Student Associations – we belong to many groups and carry that diversity quite effectively.

The Canadian government is planning to bring thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, and the city of Ottawa expects to receive about 2000 of these newcomers. Are there any plans within the Muslim community to welcome and assist in integrating these new immigrants?

Canadians coast to coast are ecstatic and preparing to welcome thousands of Syrian Refugees.  Muslims in partnership with their fellow Canadians, are working around the clock to make refugees first experience in their new country warm and welcoming. Canadian-Muslim organizations such as MAC, Muslimlink, faith based groups and individuals have rallied to help the incoming refugees and as a result have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and generosity of Canadians that want to do everything they can to be welcoming.

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.

I can’t say I know the reason why members of the black community might not volunteer. Having said that, black youth could definitely benefit the company of positive role models. I often invite friends to come and play sports with youth, you couldn’t help but notice the excitement on the youths face who some of them are yearning for the attention of positive role models in their life. And that is some of the reasons why youth gravitate towards criminality. Members of the Ottawa black community who are established tend to keep to themselves, which is also fine, their success stories and time could be huge benefit to youth who are less fortunate. It might be beneficial to look into creative ways we could make those connections easier, similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities on the one hand and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. Do you agree with this perspective and if so what can be done to remedy this divide?

Everyone’s heritage matters and differences should be regarded as strength. The Ottawa Black community strength lies in the collectivity notion and that, if individual members of the community divide amongst them between African & Caribbean communities on one hand, and Anglophone and francophone communities in the other hand, and work on their own instead of as a team, they are each doomed to fail and will be defeated. I’m sure we are all familiar with the phrase: “United we are strong, divided we fall”. Let’s look past that and start to focus how to best pool our strength and resources. We are already considered a minority, let’s not stigmatize our already vulnerable communities further.

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?

It’s my humble opinion that we are progressing. We have so much to celebrate, and continue to break down barriers and mark milestones.

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

Black men and women respect one another. However, you do raise an import topic among the black community’s preference around interracial marriage.  That preference has trickled down to youth, who both male and female express their desire to be with a Caucasian partner. Although, there is nothing wrong with such relationships, some worry such attraction could possibly be linked to internal racialized beauty standards. In addition, the black gender gap in educational attainment further complicates the relationship. Black males have been negatively labelled trouble makers, criminals, “q S fathers”, players and drop outs. That is a huge racial stigma to overcome. These types of stigma has a long lasting negative effect on black males.

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?

We could benefit the establishment of strategic plan in support of community development for the black community and providing a framework for collaboration across organizations and groups within the black community, as well as stakeholders across communities in Ottawa.

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

Stay engaged and think about how you could best potentially support your fellow members of the black community in Ottawa and elsewhere…. God Bless


Copyright: Black Ottawa Scene


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