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From Somali refugee to college graduate, Marcus Askar achieves goal 20 years in the making

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Marcus Askar graduated from Red River College after setting it as a goal 20 years ago when he came to Winnipeg. (Marcus Askar/Submitted)

When Marcus Askar arrived in Winnipeg in 1997 he made a list of goals for himself: get a job, get his wife and children to Canada, buy a house and be an active member of the community.

At age 50, he achieved one more of those goals this week — graduating from Red River College.

“It was a very big day, one of my biggest days in my life and one of my dreams become true and it was exciting and it was my graduation day,” he said. “All of my family was there and it was exciting and all my friends was there, too.”

Askar fled civil war in Somalia in 1991, sending his wife and children to Djibouti. But when Askar himself tried to join them, the country had closed its doors to refugees. So he travelled through six countries before finally landing in Winnipeg seven years later.

He got a job his first week in the city and for years he worked two or three jobs before he was eventually able to purchase a house and a car. After a long stretch apart, Askar achieved his next goal — his wife and children came to Canada.

Over the years, Askar has been an active member in the Somali community. He also sponsored other members of his family to come to Canada. Eventually, he also sponsored old friends, neighbours and classmates. So far, he has helped bring 147 people to Canada.

But all of that work meant that Askar didn’t have time to go back to school.

“Two jobs, three jobs and also I was helping all these people. Sometimes I was filling all their applications,” he said. “They would] call and ask for help. Most of them when they come from there they were in my house … Sometimes we were sleeping like spaghetti here.”

Two years ago, with support from his wife, children and the community, Askar finally enrolled at Red River College.

This week, at nearly 50 years old, he received his diploma for the community development/community economic development program.

“I put it on a piece of paper that I have to achieve this and the only place that’s possible is our beloved country Canada,” he said.

The crowd at the ceremony was filled with people whose lives Askar touched, some even coming all the way from British Columbia to celebrate.

When the ceremony was done, Askar said his son had a frame ready for the diploma.

Never too late

“They surprised me as soon as I come out of the graduation ceremony my son grabbed my certificate and he put it in a big beautiful [frame] that I can hang wherever I want,” Askar said. “They surprised me, too. I really enjoyed it.”

Askar said he hopes his story sends a message to people in the community — it’s never too late.

“[It’s] an example for them, not only for my children, for my family, but for my extended family and the community at large that everybody can go back to school at this age, or younger or older than I am,” he said.

“It was hard when you are into but when you put all your mind and muscle you know that you can go through,” he added.

Now, Askar said he wants to put even more back into the community that helped him achieve his goals.

“I would like to give back. That’s where my heart is and that’s my background, too,” he said.

“I am looking for where I could serve my community at large.”

Canada

Somali youth project update (Project TooSoo)

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CBC —  For the past year, a group of young Somalis in Toronto has been learning how to re-claim the stories told about their community.

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Arts & Culture

Kenyan-Somali, black, Muslim and Canadian: new doc explores Canada’s hyphenated identities

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Short documentary ‘Hyphen-Nation’ by 22-year-old Torontonian puts five black women in conversation

A new documentary by a 22-year-old Toronto filmmaker is analyzing what is means to be an immigrant in Canada.

Directed and produced by Samah Ali, Hyphen-Nation features a 14-minute conversation between five women of colour that is inspired by her own cultural experience.

The women discuss how their cultural heritage influences their identities as Canadians and immigrants.

“The whole conversation is what’s your hyphen?” explained Ali, calling her debut film a “nuanced” discussion about what black Canadian identities look like.

“And that’s what opens it up to so many people to identify with because whether it’s themselves or their family members who have an immigration story, everybody typically has a hyphen.”

The women are asked if they identify with being black Canadians.

Ali explains this is both liberating and tragic. She identifies as a Kenyan-Somali woman, along with a Muslim woman and a black woman.

“I don’t know if I identify strongly as a Canadian, but definitely when I leave Canada I identify as a Canadian,” she said despite being born and raised in Toronto.

“The other parts of my identity, the ones that are more visible, the ones that I practice everyday are definitely the ones that are on the forefront of my mind. Compared to my Canadianness, it’s something that I’m not really aware of until I have my passport and I’m travelling to other countries.”
Sojin Chun, programmer for Regent Park Film Festival, says the short documentary captures the theme of the festival.

“We really want to show different narratives that you wouldn’t normally see through other means, through the mainstream media,” she said.

The three day event is free and showcases the work of women of colour which reflects Toronto’s east end neighbourhood.

“We really make sure we represent all the cultures that are present in Regent Park,” said Chun.

Ali explains this is why she wanted Hyphen-Nation to premiere at the film festival.

“I want this film to foster a greater community, not only in Canada, but also worldwide.”

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Canada

Somali-Canadian Community Discusses Causes Behind Rise in Youth Gang Activity

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The Somali community that settled in Canada says poverty and a lack of access to jobs and academic opportunities are some of the factors behind deadly gang violence that has taken a toll on its youth.

More than two dozen young Somali men have died in Alberta because of such violence in the past decade, with gang activity spreading to Toronto as well, officials say.

The Somali-Canadian population discussed the issue of gang-related deaths recently at a town hall forum hosted in Toronto by VOA’s Somali Service. In attendance at the town hall were an Islamic preacher, a woman who lost a son to violence, and two people representing youth and parents in the community. More than 200 people attended, including parents, relatives and friends of the victims of gang violence.

In 1991, a large number of Somalis fleeing war in their east African country settled in a group of residential towers in northwest Toronto.

Cultural challenges

The community has struggled to integrate into Canadian life, but several speakers said the largest impediments are cultural challenges, as well as poverty and a lack of opportunities for Somali youth, panel members said.

Habiba Aden, a cofounder of a Somali group called Positive Change, lost her 26-year-old son Warsame Ali in a double homicide in September 2012 in Toronto. She said she believes cultural challenges and a loss of identity are major issues driving young Somalis toward gang activity.

“Our sons lack paternal role model, and they do not speak their mother language, which forces them struggle with identity crisis,” Aden said.

In Canada, “mothers take the leading role of the family while still struggling with raising more than half a dozen kids. They do not get the same help and cultural co-parenting they would get back home from other family members,” Aden said.

She said she believes those challenges lead families to be less physically affectionate with one another, and eventually drive their sons to outside influences.

Sidiq Ali Hashi, the youth representative on the panel said Somali youth are affected by the socioeconomic status of the community coupled with the influence of the poor neighborhoods they live in.

“I think the reason is the environment where the Somali child is being raised. He grows up in the worst poverty-ridden neighborhoods of Toronto,” Hashi said. He said the neighborhoods where Somali youth live lack investments and good schools.

Because of these challenges, some students drop out of school and fall in with drug dealers and gangs, Hashi said.

Canada, parents blamed

Panelist Sheikh Saeed Rageah, a religious scholar and Imam, said the education system in Canada has failed Somali youth, calling the schools “systematic racism.”

“The education system in this country was designed to segregate us. When the Somali-Muslim child joins the school, he or she is labeled as a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), which deprives them their rights for a fair teaching and homework support,” Rageah said.

However, Saeed Mohamed Mohamud, a parent representative on the panel, said blame belonged not with Canada’s education system but with parents.

“Whatever it is, I think the system in this country was not designed for Somalis. It has been the same since we came here. But I would put the primary blame on a bad parenting of many members within the community,” Mohamud said. “I am a parent. I always see young boys who went to school in the morning, and when they come out hanging out the streets of Toronto with their backpacks. Where are the parents of these boys?”

Some family members had questions for Toronto police, saying many of the homicide cases of slain Somalis remain unsolved.

Toronto police officials said about 40 percent of gang shootings in the city occur in the Toronto neighborhood where Somalis reside.

“We have issues with regards to gang members, drug trade, poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of recreational facilities, inadequate … housing. We have issues with families themselves and the culture that is brought into the community,” Toronto police Superintendent Mario Di Tommaso told VOA.

Di Tommaso said the gangs in Toronto, including those within the Somali community, are based on race, gender and ethnicity.

Community involvement

He said the Toronto police have spent resources to investigate the gang-related shootings and homicides, but he said some blame lies within the community and its lack of reporting such activity.

“We will have many situations where the community at large, not necessarily the Somali community, will make observations, will witnesses something, and they are reluctant to call the police,” Di Tommaso said. “When that happens, you have a proliferation of crimes within that community, which breeds fear.

“We need more witnesses from the community so that we can advance to our investigations,” he added.

At least one parent, Mohamud agreed to a point. He said the community was not happy with how the police and law enforcement agencies handled cases involving the Somali youth, saying, “We have a right that government investigates and tells us who killed our kids, but we also need to collaborate with the law enforcement agencies as well.”

Abdirahman Yabarow, chief of VOA’s Somali Service, said the forum was designed to give the Somali-Canadian community a chance to explore, brainstorm and find solutions behind the violence that is affecting their youth.

At the conclusion of the two-hour discussion, panelists proposed an organization aimed at gathering and making available resources for the community. They also urged those in the audience to unite against the influences that are pushing the Somali youth to drug- and gang-related crimes.

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