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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

Diplomatic leaks: UAE dissatisfied with Saudi policies

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AL JAZEERA — Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) is working on breaking up Saudi Arabia, leaked documents obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar revealed.

Al Akhbar said that the leaked documents contained secret diplomatic briefings sent by UAE and Jordanian ambassadors in Beirut to their respective governments.

One of the documents, issued on September 20, 2017, disclosed the outcome of a meeting between Jordan’s ambassador to Lebanon Nabil Masarwa and his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdel-Al al-Qenaie.

“The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is working on breaking up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Jordanian envoy quoted the Kuwait ambassador as saying.

A second document, issued on September 28, 2017, reveals meeting minutes between the Jordanian ambassador and his UAE counterpart Hamad bin Saeed al-Shamsi.

The document said the Jordanian ambassador informed his government that UAE believes that “Saudi policies are failing both domestically and abroad, especially in Lebanon”.

“The UAE is dissatisfied with Saudi policies,” the Jordanian envoy said.

The Qatar vote
According to the leaks, UAE ambassador claims that Lebanon voted for Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in his bid to become head of UNESCO in October 2017.

“[Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri knew Lebanon was voting for Qatar,” the UAE ambassador said in a cable sent to his government on October 18, 2017.

In November last year, Hariri announced his shock resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh.

He later deferred his decision, blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for his initial resignation. He also said he feared an assassination attempt.

Officials in Lebanon alleged that Hariri was held hostage by Saudi authorities, an allegation Hariri denied in his first public statement following his resignation speech.

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Briefing Room

Somalia’s Puntland region asks UAE to stay as Gulf split deepens

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BOSASO, Somalia (Reuters) – Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region urged the United Arab Emirates not to close its security operations in the country after a dispute with the central government, saying the Gulf power was a key ally in the fight against Islamist militants.

The dispute goes to the heart of an increasingly troubled relationship between Gulf states – divided by their own disputes – and fractured Somalia, whose coastline sits close to key shipping routes and across the water from Yemen.

Analysts have said the complex standoff risks exacerbating an already explosive security situation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where militant groups launch regular attacks.

The central Somali government said on Wednesday it was taking over a military training program run by the UAE.

Days later the UAE announced it was pulling out, accusing Mogadishu of seizing millions of dollars from a plane, money it said was meant to pay soldiers.

“We ask our UAE friends, not only to stay, but to redouble their efforts in helping Somalia stand on its feet,” said the office of the president of Puntland, a territory that sits on the tip of the Horn of Africa looking out over the Gulf of Aden.

Ending UAE support, “will only help our enemy, particularly Al Shabaab and ISIS (Islamic State),” it added late on Monday.

SUSPICION, RESENTMENT

The UAE is one of a number of Gulf powers that have opened bases along the coast of the Horn of Africa and promised investment and donations as they compete for influence in the insecure but strategically important region.

That competition has been exacerbated by a diplomatic rift between Qatar and a bloc including the UAE. In turn, those splits have worsened divisions in Somalia.

Puntland, which has said it wants independence, has sought to woo the UAE which runs an anti-piracy training center there and is developing the main port. The central government in Mogadishu last year criticized Puntland for taking sides in the Gulf dispute. Qatar’s ally Turkey is one of Somalia’s biggest investors.

One Somali government official said last week Mogadishu had decided to take over the UAE operation because the Gulf state’s contract to run it had expired. Another official said the government was investigating the money taken from the plane.

The competition among Gulf states in Somalia has fueled accusations of foreign interference and resentment in many corners of Somali society.

The loss of the UAE program could have a destabilizing effect, said one security analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The value of the UAE trained forces was two-fold – they were relatively well trained but, most importantly, they were paid on time,” unlike other parts of the security forces, the analyst told Reuters.

Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991.

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Briefing Room

Puntland President calls UAE continue its mission in Somalia

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