Hello, there. My name is Bashir, and I am a Somali-Canadian university student and active citizen. Those who know me are familiar with my work on issues such as refugee health and post-secondary accessibility. Many people who don’t know me personally might also be aware of my opinions, but may not understand the context of my perspective or my motivations for sharing them.
Over the past few years, I have often found myself unintentionally in the public eye. Navigating this new sphere has proved many times to be a rewarding experience. People from numerous communities have reached out to express shared values around my words and actions and generously offered their support or solidarity. Moving forward in this unfamiliar landscape has also been challenging.
I would like to take this opportunity to reintroduce myself and voice my thoughts on issues that I care about in a more thorough and accessible format. I hope that doing so will provide opportunities to build understanding between the diverse communities around me and facilitate constructive discussion on the way we approach these issues.
Like those of so many other Canadian families, my story does not originate here. My family has deep roots in Somalia, but they were forced to flee in 1991 due to the onset of the Somali Civil War. My father was a trained civil engineer, and a graduate from the Somali National University, the top university in the country at the time. My mother was in the middle of her university education in pursuit of a degree in nursing. With promising careers on the horizon and a young daughter (my older sister), the war interrupted them just as they were approaching a prime period in their lives. After a struggle to flee the conflict, my family found themselves in a refugee camp in Kenya. This is where I was born.
For six years, my father worked for the United Nations as an unpaid engineer while my mother made a small side income by selling items in the local market. For me and my siblings, uncertainty was all we knew. We had no idea if the war would end or if we would be able to return to Somalia. We didn’t know if the refugee camp where I was born and raised would be our permanent home or merely a stop on the way to somewhere else.
To our surprise, we received news in 1997 that we would be relocated to Canada. We didn’t know much about the country, other than the fact that it was cold and the little information my mother had learned from television shows. Nevertheless, we were relieved to have been granted a sense of permanency.
Upon our arrival in Canada, my parents quickly realized that their university degrees would not be recognized. This was an extremely difficult situation for two people who held the value of education in high regard. Rather than pursuing their studies full-time in this new country, they worked long hours at entry-level jobs in order to provide for my siblings and me. I will be forever grateful for their sacrifices.
Despite their setbacks, my parents continued to emphasize the importance education. I remember my father attending each and every one of my parent-teacher meetings. He made sure to overwhelm the teacher with questions, and would prepare additional ‘homework’ for me to complete on my own outside of school.
My father also committed to continuing his own studies, and he enrolled at NAIT when I was in the fifth grade. He was determined to contribute to society using his skills as engineer once again, and he began to work night shifts in order to attend classes during the days. Unfortunately, this level of work and the stress it caused took a major toll on him. On August 13, 2007, after coming home from a night shift, he suffered a heart attack and passed away.
I felt lost after my father’s passing, and I slowly developed a hatred for school. Anger dominated my thoughts and my grades steadily declined. I entered Grade 9, my final year of junior high, with low expectations and a poor outlook on life. Grade 9 marks were what determined the level of courses a student could take in high school, but I wasn’t thinking about high school or my future after that.
In an attempt to learn more about my father’s life, I found myself looking through his old study space in my house’s basement. I came across a box that contained his degree, certificates and awards. These accomplishments reflected the intelligent, versatile and hard-working man he was, and I felt guilt over having neglected my own education despite his sacrifices. Admiring his achievements, I was surprised to find an old test I had written in Grade 6. I remembered writing the exam with little confidence and being excited by a mark of 67%, which was high for me at the time. I remembered my father’s smile when I showed it to him, and was touched by the fact that he held onto it until his passing.
I discovered a newfound motivation to excel in education after being powerfully reminded by this memento. Using this, I achieved top marks in Grade 9 and dedicated myself to my studies. I was able to enter the Advanced Placement programme in high school, and was proud to be accepted into the University of Alberta.
Despite my performance in school, many others from my community continued to struggle and face numerous barriers to education. Seeing their plight allowed me to think critically about my situation and realize that I needed to do something to help others. At the time, the federal government was intending to cut funding for refugee health care. I was outraged upon hearing this news. This would only build on existing barriers and make it more difficult for newcomers to adapt.
In response, I did something silly. I bought some supplies from the dollar store and made my own makeshift sign. I marched to the Alberta Legislature grounds and protested – alone. People must have thought I was crazy, but I knew I had to get involved somehow. I eventually joined a group called Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. They had a much more organized approach and launched a campaign to ask important questions to government officials directly.
Soon after, I started asking my own questions. In 2012, I heard the news that Jason Kenney, the then-Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, would be speaking at an event in Edmonton. I took the chance. I put on a suit and tie and asked him a question during his speech (there was no formal Q&A period). When I stood up, other attendees dragged me out of the event, and I was arrested by police to be charged with assault. The charges were promptly dropped when police reviewed video footage of the question. Perhaps they felt threatened by my words.
After a few more years of steady advocacy by groups like Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, the federal government reversed the cuts to the program. The courts went a step further and declared the cuts “cruel and unusual.” My experience advocating for refugee health care showed me that I could use words to affect change.
Post-Secondary & Student Governance
My initial plan at university was to keep my head down and focus on my studies. However, this proved to be difficult since tuition and affordability issues continued to affect me day in and day out, both personally and in the lives of those around me. I came to realize that the stress and burden on so many students brought about by these issues was unfair, and I knew the University could be better.
A friend suggested that I join the Students’ Council if I wanted to be able to create change in areas where I saw need for improvement. I threw my name into the hat as soon as the nominations were open for the next student election. I had little knowledge or experience with campaigning, so all I did was talk to classrooms and say things off the top of my head. The candidates I was running against seemed much more organized and prepared, but students were engaging positively with my campaign points. Many students expressed gratitude for representing issues not often addressed in student governance, and I ended up winning by a margin of only six votes.
Over the next two years, the Council turned out to be largely ineffective on the issues that mattered to me. My calls for the lowering of tuition were initially met with the statement that lowering tuition is ‘unrealistic’. In this sense, I failed during my time on Students’ Council. Nonetheless, I pushed on a variety of other issues and passed motions that challenged the legality of the International Differential Fee, promoted a more student-centered form of advocacy, and resisted support for tuition increases. Through my time on Students’ Council, I learned to navigate through an often illogical system in order to accomplish things that mattered to me.
After three years in student governance, I was beginning to feel burnt out. I had reached a point where I often found myself alone in debates, and I no longer felt that my voice had an effect on student issues. I resigned from Students’ Council and decided to focus my efforts on provincial politics and grassroots issues such as human rights education. I was able to secure a position in the provincial government with the Minister of Human Services office. In this role, I was given the opportunity to advise the Minister and to work on policies relating to disabilities and aboriginal children in care. Working within the government afforded me the chance to truly gain an understanding of the provincial governments philosophy and approach to political issues.
In the year following my departure from student governance, I attended conferences in Australia, United Arab Emirates and Morocco, and completed two academic semesters abroad in South Korea, where I rode my bike across the country to raise funds for North Korean refugees. This international experience was extremely necessary in improving my mental health and expanding my perspective beyond the provincial context. I learned that provincial politics was just a small part of where I could make an impact.
Despite being abroad, I continued to follow issues affecting my fellow students at the University of Alberta. A change in the governing provincial political party led me to refocus my attention to post-secondary issues. I believe that we face an opportunity to create greater change on many fronts that I fought during my time on Council. My travels have allowed me to view student governance from a more holistic and optimistic perspective.
Anti-Racism & Policing
Having spent my formative years in Canada, I operated on the assumption that I was a Canadian like any other. My parents continuously told me and my siblings to not let others define us by the colour of our skin or by our refugee background. I came to know Canada as a mosaic of various cultures, but also a country where absolute strangers would take their time to help a new Somali family adjust to Canada, regardless of cultural or religious differences.
Throughout my teenage years, the city of Edmonton was facing an epidemic of young Somali men being murdered. The issue became personal for me when there was a murder in my own neighbourhood, and one of my close friends was murdered. Many members of my community were shocked by the response from the police force. At one point, the Edmonton Police Service suggested that they would not put the same resources into investigations involving murders of Somali men that they would put into investigations for other murder cases. I was also appalled by the general public reaction from my fellow Canadians. I recall getting strange looks in public and reading online comments expressing sentiments such as “good riddance” in reference to the murders.
Through the high murder rate of young Somali men and the response from Edmonton Police Service and the general public, I became highly aware of the discrimination faced by the Somali community. For the first time, I felt like an outsider in my own home. Remembering the words of my parents, I decided that I wouldn’t let this prejudicial treatment discourage me, and I focused my energy on academics, volunteering and community experience.
Despite efforts to ignore it, I continued to face racially-motivated incidents due to the colour of my skin. The most publicized of these incidents took place in August 2016. I was riding my bike legally downtown when a group of people in the vehicle behind me became angry and started harassing me by honking and driving aggressively. When we stopped at a red light, a man later got out of the car, rushed towards me, and called me a ‘nigger’. I was taken aback, but realized that I would face charges if I retaliated. I recorded the incident on my phone, and luckily there were CBC reporters nearby who witnessed the incident. Unlike victims hundreds of similar incidents that occur in the city every day, I had witnesses and video evidence.
With this information, I biked to the nearest police station and filed a report. Unfortunately, the officer doubted that charges could be laid since I was not physically injured. This surprised me since the man had broken traffic laws and attempted to assault me. I received a similarly shocking response with an investigating officer when he interviewed the other party three days later days later. He told me that, because I stopped in traffic to film the incident, he would have to charge me if the other party was to be charged.
There was nothing I could do. The event was categorized as a ‘hate incident’ rather than a ‘hate crime’, meaning that the other party’s actions were not punishable by law. The investigating officers did not properly understand bike laws, only realizing later that everything I did was legal. Frustrated, I spoke to city councillors and was told that responding to incidents like mine were outside of their mandate. I then spoke to the Edmonton Police Commission, who told me that they were unable to change police policies. I requested a meeting was an officer but was denied.
Though I was traumatized by the incident and the following response from the police, my interest in policing and anti-racism work was piqued. I was able to witness first-hand how inadequately the system addresses issues of hate crimes or assaults.
A common saying in Somalia goes something like: “until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will always favour the hunter.” This line of thinking led me to visit Somalia for the first time in Fall 2016. Nearing the end of my university degree, I was eager to know more about my own story and discover more of my identity.
My four-month visit to Somalia was a way for me to cap off this part of my journey. I learned the impact my parents had on relatives and on ordinary people in their community. People would open up and treat me with kindness when they learned who my parents were. It was in Somalia that I realized how much my parents truly left behind. I had an increased appreciation for the opportunities that I am grateful to have had in Canada. I am deeply privileged to have been one of the few refugees that was granted asylum, and I know that I cannot waste this opportunity.
Until now, I have shared my thoughts on my private social media or through my Twitter account. However, 140 characters are not effective at properly articulating my perspectives on several issues. I intend to use this website as a public space where I can express, in further depth, my thoughts about issues I deeply care about. I hope that you will join me in building understanding between communities and discussing matters that affect our shared society.