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Master’s degree a family first for Absher



Before they came to Canada, Nafisa Absher’s family spent years moving through the Middle East in search of a home.


Though her upbringing was steeped in Somali culture, Absher and her siblings have never set foot in the country in which their roots lay. Instead, their formative years were spread across Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Syria before they were able to secure a permanent home in Canada.

And through it all, the then-13 year-old Absher gained a profound appreciation for the single mother who strained and toiled ceaselessly to give her children opportunities that she never had.

“My mom worked really hard to make sure that, even though things were difficult, we never felt like we were living in poverty or being discriminated against,” said the University of Saskatchewan master’s student. “She always made sure that we were comfortable and felt like we were at home.

“Now that I’m older and have talked to her, I’m realizing that the stuff she’s been through is beyond my mind. I feel so grateful for my mom to have gone through all that for us to be here, and for me to sit here today and say I’m getting my master’s and I’m the first woman in my family to attain post-secondary education.”

Absher’s family found a home in Regina, where she attended high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Regina. From there, she looked to the U of S as the place where she could pursue her master’s in the School of Public Health, without straying too far from the family she holds so dear. “I’ve always had a passion to improve the health of marginalized communities with an integrative approach, and I wanted to pursue a career that would enable me to address health inequities from a population level,” said Absher, who completed the Master of Public Health program this year and received her degree at spring convocation.

Coming from the U of R was difficult at first for Absher, who says the U of S proved a larger and more daunting school at the outset. Feeling that graduate students are often isolated from campus activities, Absher became involved with the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) as a way of carving out a place on campus and helping to build community among fellow graduate students.

By her final year, Absher was helping lead the GSA as its vice-president operations and communications. This past year, Absher focused on the internal operations of the GSA, including the supervision of the staff, co-ordinating the GSA bursary selection process, overseeing the implementation of additional programs and services, and advocating for additional financial support for graduate students.

Absher recalls her final year of study fondly, when as the recipient of the Dr. James Rossiter MPH Practicum Award, she took on a 12-week placement with Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health branch in Regina.

Absher said the experience was one of the highlights of her school year, as she conducted interviews to help build a framework for developing a comprehensive regional surveillance plan. The resulting data could then be used to empower Indigenous communities to improve and protect their own health and well-being.

“It really did reaffirm my passion for working with underserved communities and working in the area of health inequities, and doing it from the point of view of epidemiology and health policy,” she said.

These days, Absher is reflecting on the influence her mother’s experience has had on her upbringing, stretching from her beginnings a half a world away and through to her chosen career-path today.

“She makes me more passionate about the work that I’m in, and makes me want to work even harder to help people who are going through similar experiences and feel they don’t have a voice—to offer my support,” she said.


Somali youth project update (Project TooSoo)



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



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



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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