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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 immigration minister warns against illegal crossings at Minnesota’s northern border

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Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, arrived in Minnesota just days after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand for now new travel restrictions for eight countries, including Somalia — the land a teenage Hussen fled with his family.

But even as he has come to symbolize for some the divergent immigration philosophies on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, Hussen shuns criticism of the Trump administration’s approach. In fact, he was in the Twin Cities this week in part to discourage a spike in asylum-seekers crossing into Canada this year that has tested the country’s famously welcoming attitude.

“We are huge fans of immigration, but we want people to immigrate through the regular channels,” he said.

In a speech at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Hussen touted Canada’s measured approach, including a gradual increase in immigration planned over the next three years.

He met with resettlement agency staff and other advocates, plugging a unique Canadian program in which private citizens and churches sponsor some refugees.

Members of the local Somali community, where he enjoys rock star status, threw him a welcoming reception in Minneapolis.

“He is an icon,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a local community leader and Bush Foundation fellow. “People see him as an example of what is possible in the West.”

The first Somali-Canadian elected to parliament and appointed as minister, Hussen was 16 when he arrived alone in Toronto, where older brothers had resettled earlier. He has spoken of finding a sense of belonging on his high school track team and of enduring a two-hour commute as he worked at a gas station to save money for college.

He got a law degree from the University of Ottawa and practiced criminal and immigration law. Once a receptionist in an opposition politician’s office, he was elected to parliament in 2015. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped him to lead the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“I am a big champion of our immigration system because I have been through it,” said Hussen, whose visit to Minneapolis was his third to the United States since becoming minister.

In the media, Hussen is often cast as an emblem of Canada’s stance against anti-immigration sentiments sweeping the United States and Europe. But he is unfailingly diplomatic about the differences between the Canadian and American approaches, saying only he has a good working relationship with counterparts on this side of the border. And, he stresses, Canada is by no means unified in support of more immigration.

A recent rise in illegal border crossings into Canada has triggered pushback from conservative politicians there and concerns from border communities such as the Manitoba city of Emerson, unsettled and overwhelmed by the arrivals. In Manitoba, many of those arrivals have been Somalis who had unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the United States. Now, Hussen and some Canadian lawmakers are reaching out to immigrant communities to highlight that border crossers undergo rigorous screening and face deportation if their asylum claims fall short.

“We don’t want people uprooting their lives based on false information,” Hussen said. “Crossing the border irregularly is not a free ticket to Canada.”

Ahmed said word in the local Somali community remains that Canada offers a much gentler welcome to those arriving at its border with asylum claims. He spoke of a friend, a permanent resident who faced deportation after a criminal conviction, who crossed into Canada this year. Though he doesn’t know yet if he will be granted asylum, the friend reports receiving subsidized housing and free legal help, Ahmed said.

To a packed auditorium at the Humphrey School, Hussen touted a plan the Canadian government released in November that will bring in almost 1 million new immigrants by 2020. About 60 percent will be employment-based immigrants, largely arriving through a merit-based system that awards points for education, language and professional skills, among other factors.

Hussen said doing immigration right requires an investment: The Canadian government is spending $1 billion this year on language classes, help with finding jobs and other integration efforts. But he said bringing in newcomers is crucial to ward off a looming labor shortage given Canada’s aging population.

“We strongly believe immigration is key to our future success in Canada,” he said.

Hussen also praised a Canadian refugee resettlement system in which, alongside the government’s program, private citizens and organizations commit to supporting refugees for a year.
The country has found these refugees do better easing into Canadian life. Hussen said the United Kingdom and several Latin American countries are modeling new programs on the Canadian approach, though he hasn’t yet fielded inquiries from the United States.

Hussen said with more refugees displaced globally than ever before in modern history, Canada plans to remain a key player in resettlement: “More people are on the move, and we can’t turn our heads away.”

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Briefing Room

Somali man found guilty in kidnapping of Canadian journalist

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FILE PHOTO: Somali national Ali Omar Ader arrested for 2008 hostage-taking in Somalia of two freelance journalists, Canadian Amanda Lindhout and Australian Nigel Brennan, is seen in an undated photo from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Courtesy RCMP/Handout via REUTERS

REUTERS — A Somali national has been convicted in an Ontario court for his role in the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian Amanda Lindhout, who was held captive in Somalia for 460 days and released only after her family paid a ransom, Canadian media reported on Wednesday.
Ali Omar Ader, 40, was found guilty of one charge of hostage-taking for his role as negotiator for the kidnappers, in a decision handed down on Wednesday in Ontario Superior Court in Ottawa.

Lindhout, a freelance journalist, was taken hostage in Somalia on Aug. 23, 2008, along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, while working on a story. They were released for ransom in November 2009.

Ader was lured to Canada from Somalia in 2015 and arrested in Ottawa as part of a sting operation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in which an officer posed as a publisher interested in a book Ader was writing on Somalia, according to court documents.

Prosecutors argued that Ader had been the main spokesman for the hostage-takers, negotiating first with Lindhout’s mother and later with a private consultant hired by the families of Lindhout and Brennan.
According to court documents, he referred to himself as “a commander” and repeatedly threatened that the hostages would be harmed or killed unless the ransom was paid.

During his trial, Ader said that he too had been kidnapped by the group holding Lindhout captive, and was forced to act as their spokesman, as he spoke some English.

In his ruling, Justice Robert Smith said Ader’s claims were “completely unbelievable,” numerous Canadian media outlets reported. Reuters has not read the ruling.

Ader faces up to life in prison. Sentencing in the case is not expected until next year.

Lindhout has said she was repeatedly sexually and physically assaulted during her captivity, and both she and Brennan have said they were tortured and starved.

In 2013, Lindhout recounted her experience in the book “A House in the Sky.”

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Canada

Two Canadas: My story of generosity and systemic racism | Honourable Ahmed Hussen

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TEDx — Hon. Ahmed Hussen entered Canada a child refugee, and today is Minister of Immigration and Refugees. He shares his experience of Canada: a country of immense generosity, but also one that struggles with systemic racism, and paints a bold picture of how a country can become truly great.

Ahmed Hussen is Canada’s Immigration Minister and Member of Parliament for the riding of York South-Weston. A lawyer and social activist, he has a proven track record of leadership and community empowerment.

Born and raised in Somalia, Ahmed immigrated to Canada in 1993; In 2002, he co-founded the Regent Park Community Council, which helped secure a $500 million revitalization project for the area, and he has been widely recognized for his significant contributions to the city of Toronto.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

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