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‘People turned into charcoal’: Somali-Canadians recount horror of Mogadishu attack

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The wait was only going to be a few minutes.

Abdi Warsame was sitting in a car with his five- and six-year-old boys, waiting for a friend to finish his banking in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Saturday.

Moments before, they’d bought a few pieces of watermelon from a woman, one of many street vendors making their living selling to the thousands who pass through the bustling intersection outside the Safari Hotel every day. A boy, no more than 16, came by, offering to hand wash the car.

That’s when the blast hit, an explosion Warsame would later learn was the single deadliest Somalia had ever seen. He’d also learn he was less than 100 metres from the blast.

At that time though, he had to run. The sound was deafening and Warsame’s only thought was to grab his two boys, one in each arm, and find cover.

“The entire ground just felt like it was divided into half and I felt the glass shatter and everyone was just running away from buildings collapsing,” the Toronto father of five told CBC News from Mogadishu, where he remains with his sons, safe at a friend’s home.

‘Young men collapsing in front of me’

“I was running for my life and for the lives of my two little ones — my precious children,” Warsame said. Gunshots were going off all around them as panic set in, no one knowing who to trust or if another explosion was imminent. All the while Warsame ran and kept on running until he got to a hospital.

The death toll from Saturday’s truck bombing is still rising, now exceeding 300, officials say. As the numbers climb, despair and horror hang over Somalia, whose president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, has declared three days of mourning. The government blames the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab extremist group, which has not commented.

There are an estimated 500 to 1,000 Canadians currently living in Mogadishu, Global Affairs Canada says. So far there are no reports of Canadians hurt or killed in the attack, but the department says it is ready to provide consular assistance to citizens as needed.

Fortunately, neither Warsame nor his children were seriously hurt. His youngest sustained just a cut. So it wasn’t until he arrived at the hospital that the sheer horror of it all became clear.

“There were young men just collapsing in front of me. I could see one holding his tummy, I could see this humongous hole … I could literally see his ribcage,” he said, recalling trying to shield his boys’ eyes as the man fell to his knees and died in front of them.

He’d soon find out his friend at the bank was OK. But another friend was killed in the blast.

Attacks ‘meant to instil fear’

Half a world away in Toronto, Samiya Abdi was frantically texting her friends as news of the explosion started flashing on her television and social media feeds. All but one, a friend who worked with the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, responded.

Abdi soon learned he was among the dead.

Abdi was born in the country’s capital, Mogadishu, but her family moved to Canada when she was just a baby as tensions in Somalia were escalating.

She’d just been to her home country, for the very first time since the family left, to visit a few weeks ago and had been at the very spot where the attack took place before it was reduced to rubble and devastation.

Intersection 4, she said, was beautifully paved, bustling young people at any time of day or night, young men playing guitars singing old romantic songs and restaurants buzzing. A sign in bright lights with one of the government’s official slogans, “Nabad iyo Nolol,” meaning “Peace and Life” stood there when she’d visited.

That sign now serves as a symbol of what the attackers tried to destroy, she told CBC News.

“It is intentional for it to take away that hope and to make people think that Mogdadishu is not a safe city.… It was to instil fear into the hearts of citizens, regular citizens, young people and mothers,” Abdi said.

Toll of attack may never be known

Hamilton nurse practitioner, Hodan Ali, has been working in primary care in Mogadishu for the past two years and told CBC Radio’s As It Happens that nothing could have prepared her for the carnage she saw.

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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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