The Somali Canadian population is "undergoing the growing pains of integration into the larger Canadian mainstream" according to the head of the influential Somali Canadian Congress. Ahmed Hussen, a noted activist and newly minted Ottawa University lawyer, reflects on mentorship, influence and integration for Canada's large Somali population and also looks ahead to his home country. I sat down with him to ask few questions.
Ahmed, you have been the head of the Canadian Somali Congress for a number of years. What are some of the immediate challenges the community faces.
Well, the community is going through the growing pains of integrating into the Canadian mainstream. This is a process that all new Canadians have gone through in the past. The main issues that we face are youth crime, poverty and access to jobs and professions.
Tell us about the Canadian Somali Congress.
The Canadian Somali Congress is the national advocacy body for Canadians of Somali heritage. The Canadian Somali Congress works to foster a Canada where Canadian Somalis, as part of the multicultural fabric of this country, live in and contribute fully into Canadian Society with the eventual goal of full integration.
Some of the more practical things that the congress is involved in is mentorship among the youth. Can you tell us about it?
The Canadian Somali Jewish Mentorship Program's importance is in the assisting of the development of the first cadre of young Canadian Somali professionals and leaders who will in turn reach back into other communities to help those in need.
The Jewish-Somali Mentorship Project not only assists in the integration of the largest African diaspora community in Canada, but also acts as a model of how diverse communities can collaborate to promote greater social cohesion between diverse communities both in Canada and in the international community.
Question: Ahmed, you did alot of work in Regent Park, Canada's largest and oldest public housing complex. Tell us about how your work as President of the Regent Park Community Council helped you understand the intricacies of community organizing and advocacy.
My involvement in Regent Park issues came about simply due to the fact that I was a resident there prior to and during my undergraduate university studies. I joined a group of passionate residents who wanted to create a real voice for the residents of Regent Park. After a period of effectively organizing the community, these residents created the Regent Park Community Council. I was elected by the residents to head this body and we got to work right away on various issues such as security, employment, education and the $1 billion revitalization project.
The Regent Park Community Council was instrumental in convincing the developers that in addition to revitalizing the buildings we had to also revitalize the community. There are too many success stories that I could give you from those days but I will just mention two. One success story success story was our ability to convince all the players in the revitalization project to at first maintain and then later increase the number of subsidized housing units even as they raced to build for profit units. This was achieved by the efficient use of previously unused land in Regent Park.
The second success story was our effort to bring the University of Toronto to Regent Park and enable this great institution to offer free classes to the residents. We called it the learning exchange because the residents, some of whom were new immigrants who had achieved high levels of education in their countries of origin, were able to learn from but also teach the University of Toronto Professors and Graduate Students who came to Regent Park.
The Jewish-Somali Mentorship Project is extraordinary in that it is the first time in Canada or anywhere else in the world that the Jewish and a large Muslim community have come together to work at a national level. The Canadian Jewish Congress assists in the provision of the mentors, the Canadian Somali Congress assists with the coordination of the mentees and the Canadian International Peace Project administers the project details.
You are currently in a very exciting journey with journalist Amanda Lindhout to help the youth in Somali attain education. Can you tell us about it?
It is a very exciting program that Amanda was able to convince me to join and I am very happy to be part of it. The Somali Women's Scholarship Program (SWSP) was created with the knowledge that every Somali woman has the potential to make substantial contributions to the development of Somalia. We aim to support and encourage the development of leadership qualities by providing full university scholarships to women who are passionate about creating positive, sustainable change in their communities.
We ask each applicant to share with us in an essay their grandest vision for the future of Somalia and how, with the education we will fund for her, she will contribute to improving her community and empower other women.
With no central government to fund education the SWSP works with private universities across Somalia, all of which operate with a mandate of gender equality. Full university tuition and fees are funded by the SWSP. In addition, the women are provided with a living allowance, which allows them to focus on their studies without the burden of poverty.
Education is a tool to create sustainable change in Somalia, a means for women to transform themselves and their communities. It paves the way for a generation of female leaders to hope, dream and take their rightful role in the development of their country.
You have met with the Prime Minister on the occasion of the Canadian-Somali national lobby day a number of years ago. How was the experience and has there been a follow-up to the discussion?
The experience was pleasant and productive. The Prime Minister was well briefed on all the issues of importance for Canadians of Somali background. We have followed up with Minister Jason Kenney on all the matters that we raised in the meeting with the Prime Minister.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am a simple individual that strongly believes in the value of giving back to the community. If all of us donated a little bit of our time, we would create much stronger communities.
I believe that the future of all ethno- cultural communities in Canada lies in integration and not assimilation. We can continue to honour our religious and cultural values while at the same time integrating into the Canadian mainstream society. This is the only way to ensure the socio-economic development of our people.