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Woman shares traumatic FGM secret and a bond is formed

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OTTAWA—When Malaika was 6, she travelled with her family on an airplane for the first time, on a summer vacation to Somalia to see her aunts, uncles and cousins.

While there, she was rounded up with other girls in the village and taken into a stranger’s living room, where her genitals were cut with a razor blade.

Now in her early 20s and pursuing a post-secondary degree, Malaika, who was born and raised in the Ottawa area, says she was told by family members to not speak about the cutting. For about 15 years she kept the secret.

“I just felt really, really lonely,” she says.

That was until two months ago, when she read Yasmin Mumed’s story, published in the Star. Yasmin is a 24-year-old recent graduate of the University of Guelph who was subjected to female genital mutilation in her native Ethiopia when she was 6. Three years later, she immigrated to Canada.

On a recent day in August, the women met and spoke about their shared experiences and desire to see other girls spared from the same fate.

The Star is not revealing Malaika’s real name and has withheld some details that could identify her. She asked that her identity be concealed because she is not comfortable sharing intimate details publicly. She has also never addressed what happened with her family and is concerned about receiving criticism from her community.

She worried that photographs showing even the colour of her nail polish or the hijab she often wears could offer clues to her identity to those closest to her.

“A lot of women praise the procedure despite its negative health-related side effects,” she says. “I don’t agree with what happened to me or the practice being done to millions of women across the globe. (But) I feel like coming out not agreeing with it would be like siding against my community.”

A continuing Star investigation has revealed the federal government is aware of cases in which Canadian girls have been sent abroad and subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). The term often used to describe what happens to these children is “vacation cutting.”

There is no reliable data on the prevalence of the problem here, but officials from Global Affairs Canada say “a few thousand” Canadian girls could be at risk, “some of whom will be taken overseas for the procedure,” according to a 2015 internal email obtained by the Star.

Recent evidence also suggests FGM may be happening on Canadian soil, including a report that found two women from a small Muslim sect called the Dawoodi-Bohras who reported being cut here.

Since 1997, it has been illegal in Canada to subject a child to FGM. It is also illegal to remove them from the country for the same purpose.

Although federal government ministers have called the practice “abhorrent and unacceptable,” experts say Canada lags behind other developed countries, like the United Kingdom, which has dedicated charities and government agencies collecting statistics, administering education campaigns and taking other proactive measures, such as programs designed to identify potential victims at the airport.

“It just makes me the most mad,” says Malaika. She is measured and thoughtful with her words.

“There was a possibility for this to not happen to me. It doesn’t mean that just because you were born in a westernized country that it’s not going to happen.”

FGM has no health benefits. It can cause severe bleeding, problems with urination and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths, according to the World Health Organization. It can also deny women sexual pleasure.

It varies from partial removal of the clitoris to its most severe form, a procedure known as infibulation, in which the clitoris and labia are excised and the vulva stitched together, leaving only a small opening.

Today, Malaika remembers little about her cutting.

She knows it happened without any explanation or warning. She remembers only that other girls in the village were coming in and out of a living room in someone’s home, one at a time. She’s blocked out her memory of the procedure, except pain. Afterward, she recalled, the family continued with the vacation as if nothing happened.

She doesn’t know for certain, but she believes her mother did not plan to have her cut before they left. “I think it’s just something in the moment. That it was a pressure thing,” she says. “And maybe other girls . . . were doing it as well, so I guess it would look kind of weird if they didn’t.”

She has never spoken with her father about what happened, and does not know if he is aware.

FGM is known to be practised in 29 countries — most commonly in Africa, but also in other places like Indonesia and India. It is seen by some as a rite of passage into womanhood or a condition of marriage. It occurs in both Islamic and Christian communities, but is largely a cultural tradition that dates back hundreds of years. In many areas, there is huge social pressure on families to have their daughters cut.

When Malaika returned to Canada from her summer vacation, she pushed any memories aside until high school, when students in her class began to learn about and discuss FGM and “how it was done in specific areas in Africa.”

“That’s when I realized it had happened to me,” she says.

“It just made me more sad. I was always saying, ‘Why am I being punished for this?’. . . On my confidence I think it hit the most there because you’re constantly reminded that you’re not like everyone else. This is something that’s going to follow you for the rest of your life.”

In August, around the same time Malaika was working up the courage to confide in a close girlfriend, she found Yasmin’s story in the Star. She read that Yasmin had made some peace with her cutting and that she is now pursuing reconstructive surgery in the United States. Malaika decided to confide in her friend.

“It took my whole life to tell her about it,” she says, adding that her friend encouraged her to reach out to Yasmin, so she could speak with someone who had been through the same thing.

Malaika got in touch with Yasmin on Instagram and the pair connected by phone. Their first conversation lasted more than two hours. About two weeks later, they met, after Yasmin drove, along with two Star journalists, to Ottawa to meet her.

Just talking to Yasmin and “(knowing) there is a way we can move on from this and also help other people deal with it” has been helpful, said Malaika as they chatted on the bank of the Ottawa River, the Parliament buildings in the background. “I felt like someone understood me for the very first time.”

Their stories have striking similarities.

Like Malaika, Yasmin kept her cutting a secret from those closest to her. She, too, buried the memories until her teens, when she started having flashbacks of women holding down her arms and legs, of a brand-new pink embroidered dress her grandmother had bought her covered in blood.

Like Malaika, she felt alone. She searched for services in the Toronto area where she grew up: a support group, specialized health-care professionals, an organization that focuses on FGM. She found nothing and had a negative experience with a local gynecologist, who she says told her she didn’t need reconstructive surgery because she had not been cut enough to cause problems with going to the bathroom or giving birth.

The federal Justice Department recently gave $350,000 to a small Quebec organization to fight FGM in at-risk communities. Other than that, experts say there are few support services available for women living with the physical and psychological effects of FGM, regardless of when and where it happened to them.

Recent data from the province’s Ministry of Health offers a glimpse into the prevalence of women living with the effects — it shows Ontario doctors have performed 308 surgeries to reverse infibulations in the past seven years.

There is no medical procedure in Canada that aims to give women back sensation. Yasmin and Malaika are now pursuing a reconstructive surgery offered by a doctor in California. The surgery, which is controversial because some medical professionals have questioned whether it works, removes the scar tissue from the clitoris and cuts ligaments around it, allowing it to descend, in the hopes of giving the woman back some feeling.

Both are clear about why they want the surgery. They want to make their own decisions with their bodies. They want to try to get something back that was taken away without their consent.

Yasmin, who after much deliberation decided to speak publicly about what happened to her, says she did not do so to demonize her family (her beloved grandmother, who took her to be cut, believed it was what was best for her), but to take the issue out of the shadows.

About a week after her story was published, a man from her Oromo ethnic group recognized her at an Ethiopian restaurant. He’d been carrying around a copy of the Star and pulled it out to show her. He told her he was proud of her for speaking out.

Recently, she received a message from her mother, who read her story and called to say that she supports her and wants to travel with her to California when she gets the surgery.

Yasmin says the main reason she spoke out, though, was to reach young women like Malaika.

“I thought . . . I’m going to do it even if I reach one person,” she says to Malaika as they sit on the river bank. “I was like ‘there is somebody out there like me who grew up here who feels so different than like her peers’ . . . When you reached out to me I was like ‘this is it. This is what I did it for.’ ”

Malaika hopes that by sharing her story, she can do the same.

“I definitely think me reaching out to Yasmin will pave the way for other girls,” she says. “As Yasmin told me, this is not something that defines us.”

Jayme Poisson can be reached at jpoisson@thestar.ca or (416) 814-2725

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Canada

Canada’s institutions repeatedly failed former child refugee Abdoul Abdi

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The ethical case to fight the deportation of former child refugee Abdoul Abdi from Canada is a straightforward one with no visible shades of grey.

Yet it has ballooned into a needless battle exposing federal and provincial indifference to non-citizen children.

On Feb. 15, a Federal Court will hear an emergency request to temporarily stop Abdi’s deportation.

The broad strokes of Abdi’s story are these.

Instability was the only constant in the life of this man, born 24 years ago in Saudi Arabia to a Saudi father and Somali mother. He lived for four years at a refugee camp in Djibouti and then at age 6 landed in Canada along with his sister and aunts.

At age 8, child protective services scooped him and his sister out of their aunt’s home for reasons unknown. This is not surprising — research in Ontario last year showed Aboriginal and Black children are far more likely to be investigated and taken into care than white children.

The family now speculates this could be because their aunt, who didn’t speak much English, took too long to register them for school.

Abdi bounced around among not one or two or a dozen homes but 31 of them, some, he says, abusive situations. A study last year by Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth linked foster care experiences to later outcomes of homelessness and criminality, among others.
Abdi, too, got sucked into illegal activities.

When he messed up, he faced the consequences. About four years in prison for multiple offences, including aggravated assault.

He is also paying the price for errors by the system.

On Jan. 4, no alarm bells were sounded in the labyrinthine corridors of power in Canada, when Canada Border Services Agency officers arrested Abdi as he left prison after serving his sentence and was at the gates of a halfway house.

They were going to deport him, they said. Send him packing because it turned out the kid who grew up in Canada was not a Canadian citizen. His crown parents — the Department of Community Services — had never applied for a citizenship for him.

Where was he being banished? Not to Saudi, his birthplace, which might have been the logical though still unjustifiable choice, but to Somalia, the place of his mother’s ethnic origins, a place so dangerous that Canadian officials and planes don’t go there. A place whose language Abdi does not speak, and where he knows no one.

Repeatedly abandoned as a child, Abdi is now an officially unwanted adult.

It has taken a village, for us to hear of Abdi.

More accurately, it has taken a set of extraordinarily large-hearted individuals, many of whom have never met Abdi, but who are tied together by a passionate rejection of injustice to bring his story to the forefront of our nation’s conscience.

Last month, Halifax poet laureate and activist El Jones chronicled in the Halifax Examiner just one week of the collective action taken for Abdi.

In it she wove the stories of disparate lives criss-crossing through past injustices. How Jones came across Abdi via Coralee Smith, the mother of Ashley Smith who died in 2007, asphyxiated from a ligature tied around her neck as correctional officers watched.

How Abdi’s sister Fatouma courageously challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a town hall in Nova Scotia, thereby ensuring national attention on this case.

How Jones and journalist/activist Desmond Cole questioned Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen at a National Black Summit in that city, and endured criticisms of being disruptive and rude and not supporting a fellow Black minister.

“As though,” Jones writes, “having a Black man sign the deportation papers is progress.”

She writes of Abdi’s “fantastic” lawyer Ben Perryman who finds himself suddenly under the glare of media spotlight.

And of the near-misses, the small successes, the support and amplification from Black Lives Matter and academics/activists Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi, and student activist Masuma Khan among others.

Here is an important thing:

“All of us have jobs, and school, and families,” she writes. “This isn’t even the only thing we’re advocating on this week, because there’s always more suffering, more rights being denied, more people in need.”

Yet Jones writes of hope, and of love that carries them forward.

Their undertaking serves to underline the inhumanity of the decisions that mark this case.

Federal minister of public safety Ralph Goodale refused to pause a deportation hearing while Abdi’s lawyers mount a constitutional challenge to his deportation. At its hearing on March 7, the Immigration and Refugee Board will not review the complexities of the case to decide if Abdi can enter or remain in the country, his lawyer told the CBC. His criminal record will inevitably lead to a deportation order, he said.

A deportation order would automatically strip Abdi’s permanent resident status.

No PR status means he can’t keep his job, means he risks going back to prison; being employed is a condition for his release.

And round and round it goes.

This is the face of institutions ganging up against vulnerable individuals. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an audience in Quebec it’s time to recognize anti-Black racism exists in Canada. “Canada can and must do better,” he said.

What are we waiting for?

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Canada

Ottawa police identify Northview Road homicide victim as Egal Daud

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CBC — Ottawa police have identified the man found dead inside a vehicle in Nepean Sunday as Egal Daud, 30, and say he was fatally shot.
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Daud’s body was found inside a parked car on Northview Road, near the intersection of Baseline and Merivale roads, around 10 a.m.
The Ottawa police major crime unit, which is leading the investigation, said his body may have been there since Saturday.

Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt added on Sunday police didn’t yet know if the shooting happened there, or if that’s just where the vehicle was left.

Anyone with information is asked to call the major crime unit at 613-236-1222 extension 5493 or give an anonymous tip via Crime Stoppers or the Ottawa police app.

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Canada

WATCH: Canada under fire for bid to deport Somali refugee

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Canada is facing criticism from human rights groups for its attempts to deport a 24-year-old immigrant to Somalia. Abdoul Abdi was born in Saudi Arabia and he says he has no ties to Somalia, where there have been years of violence from the armed group al-Shabab.

For now, the deportation is postponed while his lawyers ask a court to allow him to stay.

Al Jazeera’s Daniel Lak reports from Toronto.

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