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In Canada, an Immigration Minister Who Himself Is a Refugee

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TORONTO — He arrived in Toronto, an exhausted 16-year-old, carrying nothing but a small gym bag packed with a change of clothes. As a Somali, he applied for asylum and was jettisoned into adulthood. He registered for high school, learned to cook and landed his first job all on his own.

Over the next 25 years, he put himself through college and law school, worked his way up from pouring coffee to advising one of the country’s most powerful leaders and was elected the first Somali-Canadian member of Parliament. Last January, he set another milestone for refugees to Canada: Ahmed Hussen was named the country’s immigration czar, the first refugee in that powerful cabinet position.
Yet Mr. Hussen has rarely talked about this journey. His closest friends and colleagues, all of whom describe him as a gifted conversationalist, say Mr. Hussen never confided the intimate details of his harrowing story.

“My experience is not unique,” explained Mr. Hussen, 41, from the back seat of a car in July, being whisked from one Canada Day celebration to the next. “Canada receives a lot of refugees every year.”
In his first months on the job, Mr. Hussen has become known for his steady hand on one of the country’s most delicate portfolios, promoting Canada’s increasingly rare open door to immigrants and refugees while remaining diplomatic about the slamming doors elsewhere.

That balance has become even more difficult in recent weeks, as Haitians fearing deportation from the United States have lined up at a ditch in Champlain, N.Y., to walk into Canada, overburdening the country’s refugee processing system. Pressure has mounted on Mr. Hussen to both close the border and declare Canada’s biggest trading partner unsafe for refugees, but he has remained characteristically calm and done neither.

He never raises the fact that he was an asylum seeker himself. Mr. Hussen grew up in Somalia, the youngest of six children to a long-distance trucker and doting mother he credits for his successes. Both his parents were illiterate, but his mother prized education, cajoling tutors to work with her son every day after school, including an English-speaking cousin who taught him the language.

When the civil war reached their neighborhood in Mogadishu, the family boarded a large truck in the middle of the night and lurched south. Mr. Hussen remembers bathing from a bucket in a camp on the outskirts of Mombasa, Kenya, and hunkering down in scattered apartments across Nairobi.

Two years after leaving home, his parents announced they had bought him a ticket to Toronto — where his two eldest brothers had moved years before. He’d once glimpsed an article about the country’s prime minister’s awarding an Olympic gymnast. “I had no idea about anything else to do with Canada,” he said.

It was his first time on a plane. He recalls the surprising slap of the frigid February air as he left the airport. Since both his brothers worked night shifts, Mr. Hussen moved an hour away to Hamilton, to live with a cousin who himself was a busy college student and rarely home. A year later, in 1994, he was alone.

On the few occasions he has publicly recounted those first vulnerable months, Mr. Hussen trumpets the “everyday generosity of Canadians who helped me each and every step of the way.” Pressed for details, he offers examples so pedestrian, they invoke loneliness rather than wonder. A woman pushing a stroller stopped to show him how to use a Canadian mailbox. Another helped him decipher the strange machines in a laundromat.

“When you go through that refugee experience, it is not a free ride,” Mr. Hussen said. “You have this really long journey of settlement and integration that is very hard. You have to sort out the big stuff as well as the everyday things.”
He added, “I never had a bank account before Canada.”

He had no money for food, let alone entertainment, so he spent his free time training with two running teams and reading in the public library. He poured all his efforts into fitting in, which he offered as another reason he had kept his refugee story quiet. “I wanted to be Canadian,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the Somali guy. I still don’t.”

A government policy stalled permanent resident status to Somalis, leaving Mr. Hussen without government papers for years. He had to turn down three running scholarships to colleges in the United States.

He moved to Toronto and got a minimum-wage job pumping gas a two-hour commute away. Each morning, he left home at 5:30 to board a tram, two subways and, finally, a bus to reach the city limits. Then, to avoid paying another ticket, he would walk for 20 minutes. He saved enough to cover his first year’s tuition at York University, where he studied history.

Mr. Hussen met with members of the Vietnamese community to celebrate the sponsorship of newly landed refugees. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times

At a community barbecue, he met a local politician who was impressed with his poise. The connection helped him land a receptionist job for Dalton McGuinty, then Ontario’s opposition leader, while he was still studying. In 2003, Mr. McGuinty won the election and became premier, and at age 27, Mr. Hussen was picked for his intergovernment affairs team.

All those nights burrowed in the public library gave Mr. Hussen an almost encyclopedic grasp of world history.

“I have this comfort being by myself and reading, developing a sense of the world around me,” Mr. Hussen said in his calm voice, each word carefully chosen.
In 2005, Mr. Hussen started law school to deepen his activism, which began with community organizing in his government-housing neighborhood and moved to leading the Canadian Somali Congress, an advocacy organization.

Harminder Dhillon, a lawyer in suburban Toronto, said he hired Mr. Hussen for his first legal job because he was so impressed by his granular knowledge of Gandhi’s independence movement. Not only had Mr. Hussen known that Gandhi’s supporters had burned down a police station in 1922, “he knew the name of the town where it happened,” Mr. Dhillon said.

Soon after Mr. Hussen opened a private practice, where he represented refugees. He married another Somali refugee, Ebyan Farah, and they have three sons.

While he might not have disclosed his struggles, they intimately define him. Ms. Farah said her husband’s car was often filled with empty bottles that he refuses to throw in public trash cans and instead carts home to recycle.

“I’m trying to leave Canada in decent shape,” Mr. Hussen said. “To me, giving back to Canada is very personal.”

Follow Catherine Porter @porterthereport on Twitter.

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Briefing Room

Somalia illegally surrendered citizen to Ethiopia – parliamentary report

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Somalia’s parliament, the House of the People, says the government’s formal handover of a Somali national to neighbouring Ethiopia was illegal.

The parliamentary body set up to probe the circumstances surrounding the transfer of Mr. Abdikarin Sheikh Muse of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) presented its report with the conclusion that the government of President Farmaajo was wrong in the matter.

The team of 15 legislators – from both houses of the parliament – was constituted on September 18, 2017 from the office of the Speaker of the House with the sole objective of reporting back on the circumstances surrounding the handover.

Mogadishu’s detention and subsequent transfer of the ONLF leader to Ethiopia in August 2017 sparked outrage in the country. The action was described as a breach of Somali and international laws – which decries refoulement.

The parliament was on recess at the time the action took place, most lawmakers had gone on the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The Upper House met but deferred to the Lower Chamber to deal with the matter first. The current decision is one issued by the two houses, reports indicate.

The ONLF group in a statement confirming the handover of its top official expressed worry about the possible mistreatment that Sheikh Muse was likely to face.

“The Somali government has forcefully transferred a political refugee to Ethiopia which is known to torture and humiliate its opponents. It has been intimated that Mr. Abdikarin was sacrificed in order ti get political support from the Ethiopian regime,” their statement in August read.

It condemned the Somali regime and called for the release of Muse – who Ethiopia insists holds an Ethiopian passport and opted to return voluntarily. That claim has been roundly rejected by the family and the group which he belonged to.

ONLF describes itself as “a national liberation organisation that struggles for the rights of the Somali people in Ogaden and has no involvement whatsoever in Somalia’s multifaceted conflict at all.”

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U.S. military builds up in land of ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster

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The Pentagon now has its largest military presence in war-torn Somalia since the deadly battle in 1993.

WESLEY MORGAN

The number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country, according to current and former senior military officials.

It is the largest American military contingent in the war-torn nation since the the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle when 18 U.S. soldiers died. It is is also the latest example of how the Pentagon’s operations in Africa have expanded with greater authority provided to field commanders.

The growing Somalia mission, coming more fully to light after four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last month, also includes two new military headquarters in the capital of Mogadishu and stepped-up airstrikes. It’s driven by a major shift in strategy from primarily relying on targeted strikes against terrorists to advising and supporting Somali troops in the field, the officials said.

The new operations also come as a peacekeeping mission spearheaded by the African Union is winding down. That is putting more pressure on the fledgling Somali security forces to confront al-Shabab, a terrorist army allied with Al Qaeda that plays the role of a quasi-government in significant parts of the country.

“We had to put more small teams on the ground to partner in a regional way with the Somali government,” retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who commanded American special operations forces in Africa until June, said in an interview. “So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach. That’s why the footprint went up.”

The expansion, which was also outlined by officials at U.S. Africa Command, includes deploying Green Berets and Navy SEALs to far-flung outposts to target the al-Shabab insurgency and a group of militants in the northern region of Puntland who last year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The deployment of a special operations adviser team to Puntland alongside Somali troops has served as a model for the broader expansion of the mission.
“Puntland was the example we used,” Bolduc said. “We said, ‘We can do this in the other areas.’ So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach.”

Also, in a move not previously reported, a SEAL headquarters unit has deployed to Mogadishu from Germany to coordinate the adviser teams that are spread across the country. And in a separate move, trainers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division spent the summer working with Somali troops at the fortified airport complex in Mogadishu. That deployment has since ended, but troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division twill perform a similar mission next year, a spokesman for the headquarters overseeing Army activities in Africa said.

To oversee the expanded operation, the Pentagon has also sent a general for the first time: Army Brig. Gen. Miguel Castellanos, a veteran of the 1990s peacekeeping mission in Somali who took charge in June of a unit called the Mogadishu Coordination Cell.

At the same time, more airstrikes are being conducted than ever before to kill militant leaders and to defend the American advisers and their African allies. Those include one conducted Saturday 250 miles from Mogadishu that Africa Command said killed a militant after he attacked a convoy of U.S. and Somali troops.

Some of the strikes have been conducted under new authorities that the Trump administration approved in March. It declared parts of Somalia a zone of “active hostilities” akin to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and delegated the authority to approve airstrikes further down the chain of command.

In all, according to Africa Command, the U.S. has conducted 28 airstrikes in Somalia this year, nine of them this month. That’s compared to 13 airstrikes and ground raids that the Pentagon announced last year and just five strikes and raids in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the New America Foundation.

The more expansive military effort contrasts with the tiny and secretive U.S. military mission over the last decade headed by the classified Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s main counter-terrorism force. JSOC drone strikes reportedly began in Somalia in 2011, and two-dozen special operations troops started working as advisers in late 2013.

But the small American contingent was confined mostly to Mogadishu and the Baledogle military airfield in southern Somalia — except during short-duration missions farther afield.

“It was something like 100 people on the ground essentially being the intel and targeting apparatus” for counter-terrorism strikes, said an active-duty special operations officer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity while discussing sensitive operations.

Officially, the Pentagon disputes that the recent increase in troops constitutes a major buildup of forces.

“I would not associate that with a buildup, as you’re calling it,” said Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, referring to the troop increase. “I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently, and I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks.”

A spokesperson for Africa Command, Robyn Mack, told POLITICO that the U.S. presence has increased from around 200 to more than 500 this year.

The larger “advise and assist mission,” she explained, is now “the most significant element of our partnership” in Somalia.

The increased presence has not been without controversy inside national security circles, according to multiple people who have been directly involved in the decisions.

Prominent in the discussions has been the recent history of Somalia, which has been wracked by a series of civil wars over the past quarter-century. But the legacy of JSOC’s ill-fated man-hunting mission in support of the U.N. peacekeepers in 1993 — in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a pilot captured — has long made American and Somali officials wary of deeper U.S. military involvement.

“Everybody defaults to ‘Black Hawk Down’ and what happened in Somalia in 1993,” said Bolduc, the former commander of special operations forces in Africa.

“That was a real concern when I was working on Somalia policy at the Pentagon and the White House,” added Luke Hartig, who worked on counter-terrorism operations at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “Some military people would say, ‘We’ve evolved a lot as a force, we’ve done these raids every night in Iraq and Afghanistan and can mitigate risk in a way we couldn’t in 1993.’ But it is still one of the real catastrophes of U.S. military operations in the past couple decades.”

Nonetheless, most military and counter-terrorism officials agreed that air and drones strikes and other pinpoint operations were deemed insufficient to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven.

“We came to the realization that trying to handle the threat in Somalia just kinetically was not going to work,” Bolduc said. “Taking out high-value targets is necessary, but it’s not going to lead you to strategic success, and it’s not going to build capability and capacity in our partners to secure themselves. So we provided a plan that complemented the kinetic strikes” with a larger military advisory effort.

The arrival of the Trump administration also gave the military an opportunity to make its case to a more receptive audience, the active-duty special operations officer, who had knowledge of the strategy review told POLITICO.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh thank God, new president, new party, now we can go kick ass,’ but there were opportunities with the change in the political situation,” he said.

An equally important factor, Bolduc said, was the Obama administration’s appointment last year of Stephen Schwartz as ambassador in Mogadishu. Schwartz is the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since before the Black Hawk Down battle and is credited with laying the groundwork with the Somali government, he explained.

But with the stepped-up U.S. military effort also comes grater risk. A member of SEAL Team 6 was killed during one such mission in May.

“Do we get into contact with the enemy? Yes, we do — our partners do and we’re there to support it, and sometimes we come into contact by virtue of how the enemy attacked them,” Bolduc said. “The benchmark that we used in our planning was that U.S. forces coming into contact with the enemy was unlikely. We met that standard most of the time.”

However, Hartig, the former counter-terrorism official who also helped craft the new strategy, says he worries about special operations troops getting involved too deeply in rural regions with complex tribal politics. That’s a problem that has plagued U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

“Somalia’s incredibly complex human terrain, and you want to be sure you know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Some of the special operations guys do know a lot about Somalia, but we haven’t previously had people on the ground out in the communities.”

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Briefing Room

Egypt Warns Ethiopia Nile dam Dispute ‘Life or Death’

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for the second time in as many days, has delivered a stern warning to Ethiopia over a dam it is building after the two countries along with Sudan failed to approve a study on its potential effects.

Ethiopia is finalizing construction of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt fears that will cut into its water supply.

Cairo said last week that the three countries had failed to approve an initial study by a consultancy firm on the dam’s potential effects on Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia has repeatedly reassured Egypt, but Cairo’s efforts to engage in closer coordination have made little headway.

El-Sissi sought to reassure Egyptians in televised comments Saturday, but stressed that “water is a matter of life or death.”

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