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For a Somali refugee, what it’s like to be Canadian

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What it means to be Canadian is difficult to put into words, but for Sharmarke Dubow, it was summed up during a recent return to Victoria from the U.S.

The Somali refugee was questioned thoroughly by U.S. border patrol agents when he entered Seattle before Christmas, but when he returned to Canada through the Coho ferry terminal, the Canada Border Services Agency officer said: “Welcome home.”

“I almost cried,” said the 34-year-old, who has been living in Victoria since 2012 and became a Canadian citizen on Canada Day last year. “I’ve been looking for over 20 years for a place to call home.”

Dubow is one of 26 people featured in a free exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum called I’ve Not Always Been Canadian. In the exhibit, immigrants, refugees and Indigenous people reflect on Canadian identity and belonging.

Just outside the museum’s gift shop, the tall white panels feature black and white portraits of 26 people with a snippet of their personal story below.

Dubow’s journey to Canada needs more than a snippet to tell. It weaves through five countries, across an ocean in a crowded boat, under tents in a refugee camp and in the ivory tower of a university. It ends, for now, in Victoria after a quintessentially Canadian backpacking trip across four provinces.

Dubow was born on Christmas Day 1983 in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Despite his parent’s separation at age six, Dubow and his older sister had a happy childhood. However, by the late 1980s, the country was hit with civil unrest, which escalated into civil war in 1991.

A year later, wanting to spare her children the violence of war, Anab Hussein put her son and daughter onto an overloaded boat heading for Kenya.

Reflecting on this, Dubow quotes Somali-British poet Warsan Shire: “You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.”

After three days, the boat reached Mombasa on the coast of Kenya. Kenyan border officials initially prevented the boat from landing until the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees intervened.

Dubow and his sister were placed in the Utanga refugee camp and eventually were joined by their mother.

In the camp, Dubow lived as normal a life as possible but had little chance for an education.

When the refugee camp closed around 1997, Dubow’s family moved to Ethiopia. While he was an undocumented migrant, his relatives paid for him to attend a private school called School of Tomorrow in Addis Ababa.

Dubow will never forget the American teacher “who gave me a chance.” He quickly rose to the top of his class and discovered his love of learning.

Dubow’s aunt persuaded him to move to Egypt, where he finished high school and completed a degree in business and technology from Cape Breton University, which runs the Canadian International College in Cairo.

In 2010, Dubow was sponsored by a family member to move to Winnipeg.

“I kissed his forehead when I arrived,” he said.

After searching online, Dubow connected with North Africans across Western Canada and headed toward Vancouver on a backpacking trip.

Based on his experience working with migrants and refugees in Egypt, Dubow was offered a job at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society.

Dubow now works for the Inter-Cultural Association, connecting refugees with support services.

“That’s where most of my passion comes from … my life experience,” he said.

Dubow said he takes pride in Canada’s model of settling newcomers, which focuses on integration rather than assimilation.

“Canada is the only country were a 16-year-old refugee can become minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship,” Dubow said, referring to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

“It also reminds me that my migration story is the Canadian story. Regardless of where you come from in the world, you belong here.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

Museum exhibit
The exhibit was assembled by the Inter-Cultural Association, which received a $15,000 Canada 150 grant. The grants were offered through a collaboration involving the Victoria Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada and the Government of Canada. Storyteller Lina de Guevara heard more than 100 personal stories and worked with photojournalist Quinton Gordon, who took the portraits on display in the Royal B.C. Museum. The exhibition continues until Tuesday, Jan. 9.

Arts & Culture

Khadija Abdullahi Daleys, Mother Of Somali Music, Dies At 82

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One of Somalia’s most legendary singers has died. Khadija Abdullahi Daleys was known as the mother of Somali music, and we have an appreciation.

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Fashion

Storm Management Signs Its First Hijab-Wearing Model, Shahira Yusuf

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Storm Management, the agency which scouted Kate Moss when she was 14, has signed its first hijab-wearing model. Shahira Yusuf is a 20-year-old from London who has broken ground by becoming one of the first hijabi models to be signed to a major agency, following Vogue Arabia cover girl Halima Aden, who joined the IMG family last year. Yusuf joins Storm Management’s wide-ranging roster of models, which also includes Cindy Bruna and Alek Wek. The England-born beauty of Somalian descent, who was scouted at 17 (but didn’t pursue modeling until three years later) admits that although she grew up watching America’s Next Top Model and counts Iman, Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Liya Kebede, and Lily Cole as inspirations, she was never interested in joining the fashion industry until recently.

Shahira Yusuf photographed by Ronan McKenzie. Courtesy of Storm

“Growing up, being slim and tall, I received the ‘you should model’ comments almost every time I met someone – I’m sure many tall girls can relate,” she tells Vogue Arabia. “I’d say modeling was something I did have an understanding of, in terms of what a model is, but I did not have a passion for the industry nor fashion itself. It kind of just happened for me.”

Despite renowned models like Iman, Yasmin Warsame, and Waris Dirie all hailing from Somalia, modeling is not a traditional career in Yusuf’s culture. Yet she says her friends and family have been super supportive. “I wouldn’t be modeling if it wasn’t for my friends and family constantly asking me to do it. When you have so many of your family, friends, and even strangers approaching you and asking you to consider modeling, it definitely does make you want to pursue it.”

Courtesy of Storm Management

Last November, the Somali beauty went viral on Twitter after posting a series of photographs sporting an oversized gray pantsuit paired with a neatly tied black turban and matching bum bag. “I ain’t [sic] no Kendall Jenner but I’m a black Muslim girl from East London that’s about to finesse the modeling industry,” she captioned it. The pictures garnered more than 57,000 retweets and 122,000 likes. Praise immediately began to pour in from users the world over. “So inspirational. I’m also Somali and from East London, so you’re very inspirational to me,” wrote one user. Another user quipped: “I will do whatever it takes to support you, you’re beautiful Mashallah.”

“I didn’t think the tweet would get that much attention,” Yusuf says. “Especially for it to be reposted so many times and get as much attention on other social media platforms like Instagram, too. I’ve received so much support and I’m glad I tweeted that because it’s very difficult to stand out in such a competitive industry.” Indeed, although the fashion industry has taken major steps to become more inclusive, the number of visibly Muslim models is limited. But Shahira is hopeful. “I do believe that it’s harder to make it as a hijab-wearing model as you have already filtered so many forms of modeling out. So for one, you have fewer opportunities. This is why I feel that it’s up to the fashion industry to create more opportunities for models like me. There is a huge modest fashion market, and more companies are starting to release modest fashion clothing lines.”

Shahira Yusuf photographed by Ronan McKenzie. Courtesy of Storm

She is excited to represent Muslim womanhood in a way she rarely saw growing up. “I’ve become a model at a time when society is more accepting of people of different ethnicities and religions. It’s about time we had an equal representation and moved on from just the majority. We know that there are aspiring models from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, so there’s really no excuse for the lack of diversity.”

Though she has yet to secure her first big gig, Yusuf recounts doing a spread with Marfa Journal as a career highlight. Her biggest goal? “To be the first hijab-wearing model to land the front cover of British Vogue. That would be amazing. Another huge goal of mine is to walk the runway for my favorite designer brands, Chanel and Burberry, in the future.” But most important is keeping true to her values. “It’s so easy to get carried away with the extravagant clothes and makeup in modeling, but I want to make sure I remain true to myself. And in that way I can convey myself in the most genuine way. My portfolio is a reflection of who I am and what I stand for. I love modesty, so I want my work to reflect that.”

Whether she wants to or not, Yusuf serves as a beacon of hope for a more inclusive world, one that offers a seat at the table for everyone, and not just those who conform or blend in.

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Arts & Culture

Somali storytelling takes a new form in Minneapolis: hip-hop

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A group of two dozen young men, many of Somali and East African descent, sit in a makeshift circle of chairs on the first floor of a community theater in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Some are in school, some have dropped out, but all have come to listen, tell and talk about stories — about being harassed by police, about basketball, about feeling abandoned by politicians both local and national.

They’re all fans of 20-year-old hip-hop artist and poet Abduzarak Omar, known as “Sisco,” who organized the group and arranged the space in an effort to raise “political consciousness” among his community’s youth.

Omar, with his baggy beanie cap and ponytail, is soft-spoken, yet he commands the room with a sense of poise beyond his years.

“Culturally, back home, it’s like an elder sitting down in a circle with his kids or the neighborhood kids and he tells them the story of their land and the good and bad things that have happened,” said Omar, who moved to America at the age of 8 from Ethiopia. “And it’s kind of a similar thing what we do: We sit around and pick out stories either in the news or things that have happened that are on our minds.”

“Back home” for Omar, whose father is Ethiopian and Somali, is the East African countryside, where traditional storytelling takes a different form. After a day of tilling the land or herding animals, families would gather at night around a bonfire.

Said Salah Ahmed, a Somali poet and playwright who’s also a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, said that the traditional form of storytelling and passing on of folklore and proverbs involved a circle that encompassed multiple generations. It was a way that people learned about their identities, and the stories spanned every aspect of human life, with moral lessons easily transferable to political, social and economic issues. But that tradition and style of storytelling has been lost in large part with migration to the United States and the vast changes in lifestyle that ensued — due to urbanization, the Minneapolis winters and assimilation into American culture.

“In the diaspora, very few people will do the continuation of the telling of stories,” Salah said. “There are no animals to milk and there is gathering in the living room if there is time remaining from homework, but many younger parents that I see on the street will say, ‘How can I tell stories I do not know myself?’ ”

The reality of adjusting to a new country and finding ways to make a living and raise families is a great barrier to the preservation of history and traditions, said Fatuma Mohamed, a student at the University of Minnesota. “My father, as a first immigrant to America, is not going to be thinking, ‘Oh how do I preserve my history?’” she said. “He’s thinking, ‘How do I save the livelihood of my family?’; he’s thinking about securing a good job and making sure we can secure good jobs.”

Omar said he only knows about the traditional form of storytelling from what his older family members have told him. But he sees storytelling as a vital part of his community — and his life. “I feel unhealthy if I don’t let certain things out, and the way I do that is through my art,” said Omar, who spends his days working in the food pantry at the Brian Coyle Community Center and at the Mixed Blood Theatre.

Raised by his grandmother and aunt until he moved out on his own at 16, Omar lost a close cousin, whom he refers to as a brother, to a fatal brain aneurysm, and he lost a close friend to a fatal shooting in 2015. He picked up the name “Sisco,” a reference to an Italian tiger, a few years ago, when he was leading a youth group meeting. He said a few older men walked into the room and said something along the lines of “he is the youngest in the room but has his chest out so far he’s like a tiger in the room.”

His raps and poems touch on a wide range of topics — from love stories to deep struggles and empowering, inspirational songs. One song, “Listen to the Sky,” touches on the death of his close friend Fahmi in 2015 and includes reflections on his life and future.

I’m young with a lot to show… I hope it ain’t my time to head out

Been through madness in my past still a lot for me to let out

I just go to bed with simple thoughts as the world is moving quick …

I say I’m hella proud of me and I say I’m letting out everything

I ain’t holding nothing, take the better route

I probably blow it down I ain’t about to lie

When I’m feeling pain inside I just listen to the sky

“My music is about my everyday life; it’s about the lives of the people I’m around,” Omar said. “People sometimes say that I’m too young to have gone through so many things, but it’s also because I’m trying to put myself in other people’s shoes and tell their stories.”

Singing about values
Salah said that hip-hop has yet to be accepted by the elders in the community, but he does recognize its unifying value among youth.

“The traditional form of storytelling used to bring together the elderly, the middle-aged and the young — the whole family around the fire,” Salah said. “But now it is only among the youth that are together in these places who tell to each other; I see them reciting and singing about their own values.”

“It is not accepted yet, but I hope [the elders] will understand that this is a form of poetry and will accept it one day,” he said.

Omar knows this negative perception among elders well. He decided not to tell his wife’s parents about his poetry and rapping to avoid any difficult conversations. He thinks the lack of respect for hip-hop comes from the prevalence of songs about drugs and guns. “They hear about the guns and the drugs and think it’s negative music and doesn’t have any talent to it,” Omar said. “In a way, I would say that’s a form of expression and there’s nothing wrong with it if you have an open mind and understand there’s a bigger picture behind all the talking about guns and drugs.”

For Omar, that bigger picture is making a difference in his community and helping his fellow young East African men make good decisions. The youth group he started in 2014, which was then called “Teen Voice” while it was grant-supported, is now restarting as a simple weekly discussion and storytelling forum that aims to connect with some youth who may have lost their way or gotten involved with drugs.

“I could be a lot worse off than I am right now,” said Omar. “I’ve been around a lot of bad things, a bad crowd, but music has always been my getaway.”

Omar has a way of connecting with young members of his community that harkens back to his family roots — the core of which is storytelling. “I do come from a family of storytellers, I guess, and truck drivers,” Omar said. “My grandfather and all of his sons were well-known truck drivers and one of the families that did a lot of transportation across borders, so when there needed to be a delivery from Ethiopia to Somalia, it would be my family that would do it.”

He said that his family is bilingual, and fluent in Somali, and that storytelling was how they forged relationships: “It was their connection to people, wherever they’ve gone, they’ve been the family accepted by everyone, the family that’s gotten to know everybody.”

For Omar, storytelling is a powerful part of everyday life — and a broad concept, applicable to his music, his outreach to youth and connecting to his family history. The way he tells stories is far from the traditional East African countryside manner of sitting around a bonfire after a day of working the land, but the theme of using stories to learn about culture, identity and life.

“I try to be flexible in my poetry and music,” Omar said. “That comes from learning from a lot of people.”

This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project. Eric Bosco is part of a team of five reporters exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us.

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