It was a hot and humid Tuesday evening on July 26, 2016. Emotions were running high in a standing-room-only event at a school gymnasium in west-end Ottawa. The Somali community had gathered that evening to mourn and try to make sense of the shocking news concerning the violent death of a fellow community member over the weekend.
Abdirahman Abdi was a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian with mental-health issues who died at the hands of an Ottawa police officer on July 24, 2016. Ottawa Police were responding to a call from Bridgehead Café in Hintonburg. It was alleged that there was a man causing a disturbance and that a woman was sexually assaulted. When police arrived, Abdirahman was pepper sprayed and then pursued on foot to the footsteps of his apartment building where he was violently beaten, leaving him in critical condition. He eventually died in hospital.
With the exception of a few witnesses at the coffee shop that morning, none of us know exactly what had transpired. According to the July 12, 2017 announcement by the Ontario Court of Justice, the truth is not scheduled to come out until 2019 when the trial is set to begin.
The police horribly failed everyone on that fateful day.
While I may not know what happened that day, I feel strongly that when a woman, or anyone for that matter, says they have been sexually assaulted, they must be taken seriously. What I also do know is that regardless of what did happen, death was not the solution. The police horribly failed everyone on that fateful day.
Today marks one year since the loss of a son, a brother, an uncle, a citizen of Ottawa and a member of our Canadian family. Just like all of us, Abdirahman had thoughts, feelings, ambitions, fears, and a need for protection and security. One year ago today, these things were all taken away from him in the most unimaginable way. The very people who were supposed to protect him stole his future.
As Gandhi famously stated, "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." Abdirahman Abdi represented the intersections of the most vulnerable in our community. If we stand idle in the face of this, then what happened to Abdirahman is a shame on us all. As devastating as Abdirahman's death was, it was not in vain. Abdirahman's death has caused an awakening — a strong call for justice has emerged.
I never knew Abdirahman. I never saw him, I never met him. But when I heard what had happened to him, I felt an overwhelming responsibility to act.
I have learned that there is definitely more good than bad out there.
For the past 12 months I have been a part of the Justice for Abdirahman Coaltion, an extremely dedicated team of professional formed within days of Abdirahman's death. In the last year we have worked tirelessly to rebuild community ties and push for policy and legislative reforms. In addition to late nights writing or researching for projects on the go, we have had the pleasure to get to know the Abdi family. We have shared tears with them, but more importantly we have laughed really hard with them. They have welcomed us into their home, we have shared meals together and have enjoyed "shah and sheko, as we say in my language — kickin' it with tea and shooting the breeze.
I have learned so much in this last year. Of course, I have learned that there is much work left to do to achieve our objectives, and yes, I have learned that racism is a problem in our city. But I have also learned that Ottawa is full of incredible people. I have learned that a lot of work can be done over tea and coffee.
I have learned that there is definitely more good than bad out there. I have learned that there has been sincerity at the table at many boardrooms that we have presented at. I have learned what true solidarity means through the benevolence of so many community partners and supporters. All of these lessons I feel appreciative of; however, I feel the most grateful for the personal development lessons I have learned from the Abdi family.
You would think that a family that has endured so much pain would be full of anger and resentment. Yes, they are hurt and frustrated, and they are demanding justice. But this family is something else. In the whirlwind of their individual lives, they have made the time to make us, the Coalition and the community at large, feel good!
From the Abdi family, I have learned first-hand that you can truly rise above hate and anger.
In my faith, we believe all things happen for a reason. This whole experience has taught me that even in tragedy there is wisdom that is not always, at first, apparent. I have come to see why the Abdi family is so special. This family's resilience, strength and patience is unmatched. Even after a year waiting for justice — and recently learning they must wait another two years before a trial — they remain resolute, firm and patient. They are an incredibly loving family. Their one and only request of us as a team supporting them has been to stay united and strong. To spread love and not hatred. And to bring people together. From the Abdi family, I have learned firsthand that you can truly rise above hate and anger.
That is why today, July 24, 2017, a year after their son's death, we are holding an event at Somerset Square, entitled Standing Together to mark the occasion, because they want to see us together, all of us, no matter our creed or colour.
Farhia Ahmed is Co-Chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, a mother of four, a productivity junky and lover of coffee.
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