In recent weeks, gun violence has rocked the community as three Somali-Canadian youth were gunned down in the space of a month. One of these shootings took place on June 2, 2012 at the busy downtown Toronto Eaton Centre. In this incident that caught world media attention, one victim died on the spot while another succumbed to his injuries days later. Close to a dozen others were injured in the attack.
In the four weeks that followed, two more young Somali men lost their lives through gun violence. The killings have shattered a community already reeling from the Alberta gun violence that claimed the lives of 23 young Somali-Canadian men over the last seven years.
The West End Youth Forum was preceded by a meeting of parents who are looking for solutions to stem the violence. While the media and conservative politicians including Mayor Rob Ford are primarily concerned with enforcement measures, community and youth leaders are calling for all levels of government to tackle the root causes of gun violence including poverty, youth alienation and the lack of educational and employment opportunities for young Somali-Canadians.
Studies have revealed that there is no correlation between expanded law enforcement and decline in levels of crime. While overall crime, including homicide, has been in steady decline over the last five or six years, analysts have attributed this to government funded programs targeting the youth. But spending cuts to community grants over the last two years have led to an upsurge in gun crime in Toronto and environs.
In the absence of adequate government funding, Somali community leaders are exploring other options and plans are underway to establish community-based resources and inception of direct youth leadership in tackling the gun mayhem.
“Somali youth are dying on the streets. To respond to this crisis, we need to explore what resources we have at our disposal as well as empower the youth to select an action group to deal with ongoing violence within their ranks. We would like the youth to take the lead while the community would play a supporting role by providing them with necessary resources” said Ali Mahdi, a leader with the Somali Tenant Association that helped organize the event.
“If we are to come up with viable solutions, we need to dig deeper into this problem. We have spoken to dads and moms and we are now engaging the youth. It is important that we listen to the youth and that’s why we are here today to look at the problem holistically and from a youth perspective” said Halima Hussein, a leader and organizer with the Somali Tenant Association.
Halima Hussein underscored the significance of girls’ participation in this youth-led process as they are considered an important player in the community.
“Girls have an important role to play in the Youth Forum. We are seeking their opinion in this matter. Our girls are very successful in schools and we often work closely with them. They have helped out with outreach activities and they’ll definitely help the community find solutions” said Halima.
Somali moms are known to bear the bulk of burden when it comes to tackling problems afflicting the community. Halima states that Somali moms should not be left to work alone adding that the community should band together to get to the root of the problem.
Hibaq Gelle, a youth activist based in Toronto, observed that the Somali Community is actively taking the steps to a build better framework for its younger generation.
“The Forum was a result of a painful process of our community which is acknowledging that we have issues and we need to address them face forward. I think that we had a positive outcome despite the fact it was last minute.” said Hibaq
Responsible for facilitating the session for the young women who attended the event, Hibaq hailed the female youngsters as true agents of change.
“It was fascinating to see young and vocal women who were passionate to see some solutions to the on-going crisis in our community. I truly believe that conversations will be the ultimate catalyst that will transform our community. We need to be able to have more honest dialogue and increased action on issues that impact us the most for longevity and prosperity in this country” noted Hibaq.
When asked by anchor Hassan Abdillahi “Karate” of Ogaal Radio why the organizers sought to solicit the views of successful, law –abiding youth while leaving out troubled kids from the proceedings, Ali Mahdi said that the community was looking to start from somewhere and found it plausible to engage successful youth first owing to their potential to influence those who have fallen through the cracks.
“The idea is to initially set up a committee among established youth who would then reach out to the troubled ones. These kids know each other and the successful ones in high schools and universities can act as a critical bridge to connect with and positively influence the unlucky ones caught in the cycle of violence. In future, we hope to bring together all youth; successful and troubled ones, at the same table. As adults, our role is to facilitate interaction and activism among the youth. We would like the youth to take direct leadership in issues affecting them” said Ali Mahdi.
According to Ali Mahdi, other stakeholders like the faith community(mosques), can play an important role to rehabilitate youth on the wrong side of the law, especially those languishing in prisons and other corrections facilities. He said that the Somali Tenant Association, which represents tenants in public housing, has embarked on a citywide action to identify problems associated with gun-crime.
The Somali Tenant Association (STA) is a critically important community stakeholder as the majority of Somali households in Ontario live in public housing projects where most of the troubled kids are either born or raised. Apart from addressing violence in public housing, the association spearheads Somali tenant rights by fighting against unfair evictions and seeking the expedition of ten year plus waiting periods facing thousands of Somali housing applicants.
While stating that Ogaal Radio has always been on the forefront to provide Somali-Canadian youth with a strong voice, anchor Hassan “Karate” noted that Somali-Canadian organizations are visibly absent from youth initiatives adding that it is only individual activists, community volunteers and youth leaders who are taking necessary action.
He urged the community to rely more on preemptive measures.
“There is a tendency in the community to act only when beset by a misery. We can effectively overcome the myriad of challenges we face if we move proactively to preempt potential problems before they arise. The community needs to speak with one voice when looking at this dilemma” said Hassan “Karate.”
Hassan “Karate” added that the community and policy makers need to find a quick solution to rising unemployment among educated Somali-Canadian youth who hold university degrees and college diplomas saying that “Once gainfully employed in numerous professions, the educated youth can help save the troubled ones and they can definitely act as positive role models that can inspire others.”
He called upon the Somali business community and professionals to come to the youth’s rescue.
“The Somali-Canadian business community must also intervene on behalf of the youth. We have very limited resources in the community and so it is imperative that Somali professionals and businesses as well as mosques pull their resources together for the sake of the youth” said Hassan “Karate.”
Elmi Abdulle, a third year Public Administration and Governance student at Ryerson University, decried the lack of openness in the community on the issue of youth violence adding that service-based organizations are ill-equipped to the deal with this predicament.
“We need to get out of the denial trap. Once we accept something is wrong, we can work toward solutions. Our community organizations that are still dealing with immigration and settlement issues are out of touch with the reality of Canadian-born youth. The youth are more open on this issue and a lot of young people are capable of assisting the elders in tackling the problem and finding real solutions” said Elmi.
Elmi, who recently lost two cousins to gun crime, feels that the community should move beyond tokenism and shift its attention to finding greater solutions.
“This is not a crisis that will be solved by basketball and sports programs that are just the tip of the iceberg. For youth who are in the 24-25 age range, basketball would do nothing for them. We need greater access to education, training and employment programs. We also need to instill in the youth a sense of pride in their cultural heritage and identity.”
According to Elmi, spiritual programs are critical in stemming back the effects of gun crime stoking the youth.
“We can find solutions in youth-focused Islamic initiatives. In the US, Islamic spiritual programs have saved urban ghettoes and transformed the lives of not only Muslims but also non-Muslims. We can replicate that experience here. The mosques can certainly engage the youth to effectively tackle the problem” said Elmi.
The forum is expected to create greater cohesion among the Somali-Canadian youth in bid to find lasting solutions to gun violence and other obstacles facing the younger generation in the community.