May 10, 2017

The Pursuit of Happiness: The Story of a Somali Refugee-Path Immigrant

Olaitan Ogunnote, Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario

I left saturated and quieted by so many emotions. I felt inspired and hopeful. I also felt sad and angry.
Seated across this man, restaurant patrons interrupted our conversations by greeting him and exchanging pleasantries. They greeted with hands in the air and then proceeded to place them on their chests. He seemed well known and well respected. His round, slightly sunken eyes were encased in his glasses, and they told the stories of their experiences, their long, hard journeys, and their resilient spirits. He began, ‘I escaped hopelessness in pursuit of happiness’. Abdi is a youth mentor whose ignited storytelling transported me to the world I would never know.

Our discussion with Abdi was a heavy one, we laughed, and we almost cried. We caught a glimpse into the life of a man that has had a wild dance with life. Shortly after his mother died, Abdi stood by helplessly as his father was murdered right before his eyes. With no parents for support, he and his ten siblings scattered and ran for survival after witnessing their 14-year-old brother get shot in the back. They all dispersed haphazardly, severing their family cord. With regret, Abdi confessed that he left his 8-month old brother in his urgency to escape death. They were uprooted from each other by forces greater than them, and as they all ran in different directions, they scattered around the world in a similar fashion. Abdi’s parents and siblings were taken away from him.

As an eight-year-old, Abdi had more access to guns than pencils and sand was his paper. Following his flight from his town in Somalia, Abdi walked alone for about 350 km with no water, no shelter, and no food. He eventually found some adults in the distance who he followed until he reached Kenya. He recounted being too fragile to continue and having an adult carry him. It was an ordeal, to say the least. Fortunately, Abdi encountered his Uncle in Kenya who from there became a parent and a saviour to him. Together, they surmounted the overwhelming odds that stood against them and found their way to Canada.

Abdi recalled immigrating to Canada as a young child who did not speak English. He remembered his teachers being kind and compassionate to him. His voice vibrated with gratitude as he talked about the opportunity to receive healthcare and education. Going through what he went through at a tender age, anger and bitterness grew deep roots in him. To overcome the psychological and emotional turmoil Abdi experienced, he became bookish. School became his escape, and he was determined to succeed, graduate, and make it to university. Abdi did and graduated with a degree in Anthropology and History. He mentioned that the learning process morphed into a healing process for him as he began to learn about people and cultures and historical events. The education he received began to assemble the shuffled pieces of puzzling questions he had regarding why his native country, Somalia, unfolded in the damaging way that it did.

The screen glared with the images of a happy family. Abdi proudly showed me a picture of his wife and his four children on a family vacation at Niagara Falls. He proclaimed, “I’m living the dream”. I asked him to clarify on that. What did he mean by he is living the dream? He replied, “I’m a father, a husband, and a youth mentor”. “I come home to my kids, and they love me, I’m the world to them. I’m living the dream”. Abdi described Canada as the greatest country as it gives individuals reason to do well and be whatever they want to become. His patriotism is unparalleled as his identity as a Canadian is unshaken. In his words, he is just as Canadian as anyone who was born in Canada, and he would take a bullet for Canada.

Despite all the amazing things Abdi had to say about Canada, he was clear in highlighting that Canada as a nation still has flaws. Even though he reckoned that Canadian values are some of the greatest with respect to kindness, humility, co-existence, mutual respect, and tolerance are promoted, he is also aware that income inequality, poverty, and homelessness are still huge problems in Canada. “We need to advocate for our indigenes”, he remarked. [1]Only in the 1960’s were the First Nations people allowed to vote without giving up their Indian status. [2]Not a single statutory holiday for the natives. [3]Not one single currency note with natives on it. [4]And, the residential schools were just abolished in the 1970’s. All these he relayed with passion in his voice.

Abdi brought it closer to home and discussed his community and the issues they encounter. The schools in their neighbourhoods are under-funded and under-resourced. The police are distanced, and the community is a hostile environment where the language of, ‘priority neighbourhoods’ is a euphemism for ‘ghetto neighbourhoods’. Working as a youth mentor, Abdi is aware that the young people’s parents work two to three jobs to [5]provide for them. Having to [6]care for them in addition to that is a difficult task. He soberly recalled an incident where he witnessed a 12-year-old being beaten by three police officers. “Young people don’t want to have anything to do with the police. When you’re such a resilient community, you don’t talk about it. Even when they talk about it, there are no actions. The community has been over-conferenced, over-sessioned, and over-trained”, he noted.

The immigrant experience is a unique one. Abdi has since reconnected with all his siblings. He has a brother in England, Norway, Finland, and a sister in Germany. Some of his siblings are in Canada as well. Recently, they had a reunion, and he relived the experience with joy on his face. With laughter breaking out, Abdi commented that the problem now is that all their children speak different languages. He prides himself in that all his siblings attended university despite the traumatic impact of their shared childhood experience. Abdi suggested that counselling should be provided for the incoming Syrian [7]refugee path immigrants. Although preserving their culture is vital to many immigrants, he also stated that immigrants want to learn and have that sense of belonging. They adopt quickly and observe cultural behaviours over here in Canada such as holding the door for people or that it is acceptable for two men to hug. Abdi laughingly declared that “I never knew dudes hugged”. Immigrants are hard-working and resilient people, he added.

Abdi concluded that Canada is the best country ever despite all the issues he pointed out. He said his loyalty is 110% and that the best thing Canada provides is a voice to speak up. “I’m lucky to be here”, he asserted. “Even though you go through unpleasant experiences, you see it, you scratch your head, and you question; you have to move on. It is important to develop a mechanism that protects your emotions, your spirituality, and your state of mind. Life is a learning process, and at the end of the day we are all children of God”, he ended.

Olaitan Ayomide Ogunnote, Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario.

[1] “On 31 March 1960, portions of Section 14(2) of the Canada Elections Act were repealed in order to grant the federal vote to status Indians. First Nations people could now vote without losing their Indian status.”-
[2] National Aboriginal Day is a statutory holiday that is observed on June 21st only in the Northwest Territories-
[3] “Haida symbols are featured on the 2004 $20 note” -
[4] “The last residential school closed in 1996”-
[5] ‘Provide’ in this context means catering for physical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.
[6] ‘Care’ in this context implies being actively present to guide the young ones away from evil and towards good.
[7] “Refugee path immigrants (RPIs) are people who entered their new country through refugee routes” (Adekunle et al. 2015)
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