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Why Turkish diplomats are pressuring Canada’s Somali diaspora

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the crowd, who are celebrating the results of the referendum, at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on April 17, 2017. (Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

McClatchy — Early last August, a group of Somali community leaders was invited to the Turkish consulate in Toronto to meet with some Turkish parliamentarians. The meeting was one leg of a Canadian tour for the visiting politicians, which also included trips to Ottawa and Montreal, and the theme of the tour was the July 15 attempted military coup in Turkey.

The Turks, armed with a narrative worthy of a John Le Carre novel, laid out the details of how a secretive cult, with tentacles stretching around the world, had, over decades, infiltrated the power centres of the Turkish state, culminating in the violent attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government.

The group of 20 or so Somalis who were present greeted the Turkish delegation warmly. In 2011, Turkey rescued Somalia from a punishing famine and has continued to provide the Somalis with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. “Anybody who cares about Somalia, cares about Turkey,” one attendee, Issa Muse, stood up and proclaimed.

The Turkish government has also cultivated a strong relationship with Canada’s Somali community, the largest Somali diaspora in the world. Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen, who arrived in Canada as a refugee from Somalia in 1993, was present at the Toronto meeting. He had developed close ties with Turkey’s ruling elite during his tenure as president of the Somali Canadian Congress.

Normally, a meeting like this would hardly raise eyebrows, but there was nothing normal about Turkey in August 2016.

The coup attempt, which left hundreds dead and saw tens of thousands of civilians flood the streets to confront the putschists, left deep scars. In its aftermath, the ruling AK Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared a state of emergency and launched a massive purge to weed out what it described as the terrorist “parallel structure” responsible for the attack, the Gülen movement.

Hussen was in Istanbul on the night of the coup attempt, reportedly on vacation with his mother. But, according to local sources, he was also there as a guest of some high-level AK Party politicians, including Kenan Sahin, the mayor of Istanbul’s Pendik district, and Cemalettin Kani Torun, the deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission. The next day, he described what he experienced that night to Canadian media in glowing terms.

“The preservation of democracy is very important,” Hussen told Global News, “and to witness regular people—students, workers, regular folks in Istanbul—come out in the thousands and peacefully defend democracy and also celebrate the preservation of democracy was quite special to me.”

Others saw something very different. Some observers noted that nightly “democracy” rallies organized by the AK Party were infused with rhetoric that would make most democrats cringe. Erdogan was lauded as the saviour of the nation; songs were written in his honour and looped in public squares for hours on end.

The international community watched with trepidation. Within days, thousands had been arrested, including judges and bureaucrats accused of being members of the “Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization,” or FETO.

Foreign journalists, including a Maclean’s reporter, were harassed and detained, while many of their local counterparts were thrown in jail.On April 16 this year, Turkish citizens voted in a referendum on a package of constitutional amendments that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into a highly centralized presidency, securing Erdogan’s dominance. By then, Gülen supporters all over Turkey were on the run.

The AK Party had also turned up the heat internationally. After the coup attempt, Gülen supporters in Europe and elsewhere, including Canada, had been put under heavy scrutiny by Turkey’s intelligence services. Some European Union governments took exception to Turkey’s referendum campaigning in their cities, arguing that AK Party leaders were using language that sowed discord among Europe’s large Turkish diaspora, including calling a “No” vote a vote for the “terrorists.”

The international community, including a small team of election observers from the EU, warned that the referendum results not only violated the basic principles of fairness, but would also lead to a dismantling of Turkey’s democratic institutions. Erdogan, with his signature bravado, accused Europe of having a “crusader mentality.”

In reality, the coup attempt gave Erdogan the tools he needed to ensure a referendum win. It set in motion a more aggressive Turkish foreign policy and it ignited an AK Party push to extend its influence—and pursue its enemies—around the world, including in Canada.
The August gathering of Somalis at the Turkish consulate in Toronto—to discuss a coup attempt led by Turks in Turkey—seemed odd to some of those who were present. “It was strange,” Omar Hassan, chairman of the Somali-Canadian Business Council, told Maclean’s. “The Turkish delegation referred to the Gülenists as terrorists and everyone clapped. Hussen talked about the close relationship between Turkey and Somalia but never contradicted the ‘terrorist’ label.”

A spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, where Hussen has since been appointed minister, told Maclean’s the meeting was only one of many Hussen attended that day. “He arrived late from another meeting,” Bernie Derible said. “And he didn’t stay until the end. He said a few words and he left.”

Derible added that there was nothing out of the ordinary about Hussen’s visit to Turkey in July. It was a trip that Hussen, who was not in Cabinet at the time, paid for himself and made in a personal capacity. “The minister is one of those guys,” he said. “He meets with people. He talks to local elected people. But there was nothing they talked about in an official capacity.”

Hassan, who has close ties to Gülen-run organizations in Canada, says he was nonetheless disturbed by what he witnessed at the meeting. The Somali prime minister at the time of the coup attempt, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who is also a dual Canadian-Somali citizen, had sided with the Turkish government. Within days of the failed putsch, Gülen-run schools and a hospital in the capital of Mogadishu were seized and turned over to the Turkish embassy.

Years of AK Party financial support to Somalia had paid off, Hassan said. “And it felt to me like, at that meeting, Turkey was trying to pressure the Somali community into marginalizing the Gülen community in Canada. And Hussen did nothing to challenge that.”
The Turks, however, were facing a less amenable audience elsewhere. Judy Sgro, the MP for Humber River-Black Creek in Toronto, home to the Gülen-affiliated Nile Academy school, told Maclean’s in October last year that Turkey should stop harassing Canada’s Turkish diaspora and “focus on the people living in Turkey.”

“This is such a wonderful community,” she said of the Nile Academy’s staff, students, and parents. “I’ve been visiting them for years and I can’t say anything negative. Their values are Canadian values.”

Still, a senior diplomatic source in Canada told Maclean’s that Turkey has been using whatever leverage it can find to sideline its critics in Canada, including putting pressure on other diaspora communities, like Somalis, who have close ties to the Turkish state.

The diplomatic mission in Toronto, he added, speaking on condition of anonymity, has been monitoring senior Gülen members and reporting their activities back to Turkey, a charge the Germans have been levelling against the AK Party in their country for at least a year.
Unlike Germany, Canada does not have a significant Turkish population. But, despite their small numbers, Gülenists in Canada play an outsized role in the Turkish calculus, the senior diplomat said, because of the close proximity of the U.S.-based Fethullah Gülen, the reclusive cleric who heads the group. Turkish authorities worry that Canada may provide safe sanctuary for him in the event the Trump administration decides to extradite him back to Turkey.

So far, Canada has tried to stay out of Turkey’s intrigues, though it has accepted the asylum claim of one Turkish diplomat, the former vice-consul at the Turkish consulate in Toronto, Gökhan Toy, who is accused in Turkey of being a member of FETO.

“Canadian governments, both the Liberals and the Conservatives, do not want to rock the boat,” the senior diplomat said. “Turkey is a key NATO ally and essential to the fight against ISIS. Canada doesn’t have a lot of influence over the Turkish government to begin with, so why would it raise tensions? There is nothing to be gained.”

Others, however, warn that if Canada does not take a position soon, it could find itself at the mercy of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. The spying allegations are particularly worrisome, according to one security expert in Istanbul, who also requested anonymity.

Under Erdogan, he explained, Turkish intelligence agencies have been given sweeping powers to conduct operations at home and abroad with little to no oversight. Under the new presidential system, control of the intelligence community will likely shift to the president, who has already demonstrated his penchant for using it against his perceived enemies, particularly in Europe.

“Canada should not be so confident that it has been spared,” the expert warned. “As Turkey loses its diplomatic legitimacy in western countries, it will rely more heavily on secret channels to pursue its interests. We’ve seen this process before, in Iran for example. When the revolutionary regime came to power, it did so without the support of most of the international community. So instead of dealing openly with the world, it went underground. It relied on its spy agencies to get the information it needed. Turkey is heading in the same direction.”

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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