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Briefing Room

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

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Briefing Room

Somalia welcomes 41 nationals released from Indian jails, more to follow

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The Federal Government of Somalia on Friday welcomed home forty-one nationals who had been in Indian jails for piracy related offences.

The returnees were welcomed at the Mogadishu International Airport by Prime Minister Ali Hassan Khayre and other government officials.

A Voice of America journalist, Harun Maruf said the former detainees were released after negotiations between the two countries.

He added that: “They were part of 120 Somalis arrested by India navy after being suspected of involvement in piracy acts, some have served their jail terms.” Two of them are said to have died in prison.

The Prime Minister later wrote on Twitter that the government will continue to do all it takes to return Somalis languishing in jails outside the country. Reports indicate that 77 others will be freed in the coming months.

The Somali government in 2017 secured the release of over twenty of its nationals held in neighbouring Ethiopia’s jails.

The government was also instrumental in the release of a top Somali journalist who was jailed in Ethiopia.

The Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo government, however, attracted public outrage by handing over a Somali national to the Ethiopian government.

A move that was slammed by Somalis and by human rights groups who claimed Mogadishu had virtually handed him over to be tortured.

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Briefing Room

US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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