Somali-Canadian murders: With their sons dying, a community seeks action — and help
The Toronto Star
October 16, 2012 Markacadeey
The flyerhas her son’s picture on it. Not the mug shot police released in the
days after he was killed by bullets, but a family picture from a cousin’s
wedding. He looks happy. Handsome. Warm.
Written on one side is a plea for information and a Crime Stoppers hotline to
send anonymous tips to police. On the back, the same plea in Somali.
On Sunday, Habiba Adan, still unable to walk by the narrow alleyway in Jamestown
where her third boy, Warsame Ali, was gunned down with his friend last month,
went door to door in the violence-plagued community housing project asking
residents — some angry, others fearful — for help finding her son’s killer.
“I want to do my part,” she says. “To help police solve these murders.”
The cruel irony is that Warsame’s life was extinguished by the very violence his
mother has spent two decades — and, in particular, the last three months —
trying to stop.
Now, as she searchers for answers for her son, her resolve to find solutions for
a community that is seeing too many of its young people die has taken on the
force of the bullet that killed him.
After years of sounding alarm bells, people seem to be listening. And there’s a
feeling that promises for change may actually be kept.
Just after midnight on Sept. 18, Warsame and Suleiman Ali, both 26 and not
related, became the 27th and 28th shooting deaths of 2012. They are the fifth
and sixth young Canadian-Somali men murdered in Toronto since June.
Shot in known gang territory in Etobicoke, inferences of gang violence followed
in media reports. Det.-Sgt. Justin Vander Heyden says he doesn’t believe that to
be the case.
“Their links to this community, from every piece of evidence we have, are
social,” he said Sunday, while Adan and her husband, as well as Suleiman’s
mother and sister, handed out flyers.
And while it’s been reported both young men are “known to police,” their charges
were “relatively minor,” said Vander Heyden, adding police don’t believe past
run-ins with the law had any influence on why they were there that night or
their deaths. Both men had good families and jobs, he said. Suleiman left behind
a 7-year-old son.
To most in this city, Warsame is just a statistic. To his older brother, Ahmed,
Warsame was the guy who took his winter jacket off and handed it to a homeless
man. To his parents, he was the son who, when off working in Montreal, would
call nearly every night and say: “Mom, Dad, I love you.”
The community is bleeding and, if nothing is done, another Somali man will be
murdered, Adan says while sitting in the living room of her friend’s home,
surrounded by a handful of Somali-Canadian women, all there for their fledgling
“I don’t want another mother to go through what I have gone through.”
Adan, a petite woman, with glasses that complement a cerebral air and quiet
grace, married Mohamed Hussein in 1977 in Mogadishu, Somalia.
He, with a degree in science and genetics, and another in anthropology, was the
director of livestock projects for the east African country, and a lecturer at
the local university.
She, once in charge of the census for the entire capital, worked at the ministry
They lived a middle-class life in the now war-ravaged and rocket-pocked capital.
Warsame, a quiet kid, was born in Mogadishu, but moved to Nashville, Tenn., in
1989, when he was 3, so that his mother could pursue a master’s degree in
One year later, Somalia was in the grips of civil war and Adan, who is 63,
brought her three boys to Toronto, joining her sister and brother. “We came here
because we didn’t have a place to go back to,” she says. The family applied for
refugee status and began building a life with little. Hussein joined them one
The family first lived in an apartment in the Silverstone area of Rexdale, near
Jamestown, where Warsame was shot.
Both parents struggled to find jobs, but Hussein, who is now 67, eventually took
up a post helping to find at-risk youth employment. Adan, having studied social
work at York University, began counselling abused women.
In 2001, they bought a two-storey home in Vaughan. Back then, the area was
nothing but farmland and so the family watched it morph over the years into
subdivisions and shopping complexes in the shadow of Canada’s Wonderland.
While their two older boys, Ahmed, 29, and Mahad, 30, didn’t keep ties to the
neighbourhood where they spent their early years, Warsame, described by Ahmed as
“loyal to a fault,” did.
The family didn’t know Suleiman, described by his sister Fadumo as “the light of
the family,” well. They had met him only a few times. But they believe Warsame
knew him from those childhood ties.
Both men knew Abdulaziz Farah, 28, killed just two weeks before them, according
to their families. After Farah’s death, Warsame lamented to his brother: “It’s
always good people dying.”
After graduating from high school, Warsame wanted to be a police officer, and
tried his hand at a police foundations course at Seneca. He had every intention
of going back to school to study social work, says his family.
“The week before he was murdered, we were chatting and he said, ‘You know, Dad,
the past is past and I’m looking forward to the future,’ ” says his father,
Hussein, a man who talks often of forgiveness and prevention.
“Those were his words.”
Most recently, Warsame was commuting to Montreal for work, distributing yellow
pages and coupons. He wanted to get married, to have a family.
Every night since her son’s death, Adan wakes up at 1 a.m., around the same time
the 911 calls reporting gunshots came in.
“It’s like a clock goes off in my brain,” she says, holding back tears. “Then my
eyes open and I can’t go to sleep.” Her son’s words, “I love you,” words not
often uttered in her culture, plays on a loop in her head.
“I ask myself what I did wrong. Every parent asks themselves that question when
their child is not there anymore,” says Adan. “That guilt shouldn’t be with me
only. It should be with the three levels of government.”
The women of Positive Change, the group Adan and others in the Somali-Canadian
community began just months ago, are tireless and resourceful, and are only just
“We started three months ago, not knowing that it will hit us so close,” says
group member Faduma Mohamed, a formidable force herself, of Adan’s loss.
“But we will continue. This tragedy will not depress us or stop us.”
Unlike other Somali-Canadian groups that offer services like youth mentoring or
programs for new immigrants, the women, bolstered by men and young people from
the community, as well as former Toronto School Board trustee Bruce Davis, have
their sights set on the corridors of power — the decision makers at the schools,
at police headquarters and at every level of government.
The barriers for Toronto’s nearly 80,000 Somalis, as well as thousands more in
Ottawa and Alberta, are simply too large for the community to solve on their
own. For years, they’ve been asking for help, and no one has been listening, the
The unemployment rate for Somali-Canadians is above 20 per cent, the highest of
any ethnic group. About 35 per cent of young people drop out of high school.
“When a kid is dropped out from school and not working, where do you think he
goes?” asks Adan.
The bloodletting is not new, either. Since 2005, more than two dozen
Somali-Canadian men have been murdered in Alberta, caught up in a deadly drug
trade. “Most of the Alberta kids are Toronto kids,” says Mohamed of the lure of
fast money for those who can’t find employment.
(Hussein Hussein, 28, killed in an upscale apartment building in Toronto’s north
end in June, had spent time in Fort McMurray, Alta., according to police.)
Vulnerable youth have also been co-opted by radicalism. In 2009, several young
people fled to Somalia to join Al Shabab, an Islamist youth militia aligned with
“We talk with everyone who has sympathy for us, but no one is taking the first
action,” says Mohamed, wagging her finger.
In an effort to spur that action, the women have recently been showing up in
politicians’ offices unannounced and armed with whistles. They want an emergency
summit, something that would bring key players from all realms together, and
they need champions for their cause.
They seem to have found one in Dr. Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s Minister of Children
and Youth. On Wednesday, Hoskins sat down with Adan and Mohamed, as well as
other partners in the Somali community, and listened to her story.
On Friday, he told the Star in no uncertain terms that he is committed to
working with the community and convening and hosting a summit at the end of
He added that it’s “critically important” that representatives from the federal
government and the city, as well as the education, settlement and justice
sectors, are all there to meet with the community.
“It’s heart-wrenching to see how this incredible community of individuals ...
how they’re struggling with something as tragic and difficult as the loss of so
many of their sons,” says Hoskins, who once lived and worked in Somalia as a
The Toronto District School Board and Toronto police are two big targets on the
Two weeks ago, when TDSB head Dr. Chris Spence was a no-show to a meeting the
group had asked for and sent his staff instead, Adan, along with dozens of other
Somali women, showed up at a trustee meeting with their whistles the next night.
Spence sat down with them right then and there, and promised to meet them again
Somali-Canadian kids — boys, in particular — are dropping out of high school at
four times the national average. Students who speak Somali and Spanish have the
lowest rate of graduation, according to a TDSB study following a cohort of grade
9s over five years.
Farhia Abdi, a Somali-Canadian woman who recently completed a thesis on the
subject for York University’s masters of education program, says she believes
the school board is failing in its mandate
“The statistics are shocking,” she says, adding that the problem begins in
The data, she says, show that about 60 per cent of kids are coming into high
schools performing below average in reading, writing, math and science, with
There are issues with an overrepresentation of Somali-Canadian kids in special
education programs, she says. As well, students are being ushered into applied
streams, which prevent them from applying to university. The relationship
between parents and schools are strained, partly because parents who grew up in
Somalia know nothing of the concept of suspensions, and don’t have the
wherewithal to navigate the system.
Many of the students Abdi interviewed for her research said they felt like the
schools were trying to kick them out.
“They’re demoralized,” she says.
The women of Positive Change want a task force similar to the one
Portuguese-speaking students, who have only a slightly higher dropout rate, got
On Thursday, Jim Spyropoulos, the board’s co-ordinating superintendent of
inclusive schools, said this is “an urgent, urgent situation and it’s not lost
on us at all.
“We need to do better.”
Work has been done, he said, mentioning a Somali-parent liaison committee. Four
Somali community support workers have been hired, and the board has actively
been recruiting Somali teens for their Focus on Youth program.
Somali was recently added to a list of languages on the school board’s website,
When asked about the task force, Spyropoulos referred to a recent meeting with
board trustees, who have the power to create a task force, and members of the
“There’s definitely, I believe, a good understanding that we will be working
with the community to establish a task force,” said trustee Maria Rodrigues, who
was at that meeting.
As for the cops, the women wonder why there is only one Somali officer employed
by the Toronto police. For a force that prides itself on, and has won awards
for, its diversity, it’s a good question.
Mohamed refers to work done by police in Minneapolis, who have attributed
reduction in crime to the efforts of two Somali officers who were once refugees.
They have been able to connect with a community that may be distrustful of any
authority because they come from a country rife with corruption and abuse.
Adan’s son Ahmed recently applied to police college, went through a series of
tests and interviews, and was then told by a recruiting officer there was a
hiring freeze, she says.
Sgt. Mandeep Mann of Toronto police’s divisional police support unit, said
Friday: “In terms of employment, there is work for us to do. And we are actively
working on it.”
The Toronto Police Services Board has recently authorized the hiring of more
officers, Mann said, adding police have identified about 20 Somali youth and
will encourage them to apply to police college, and assist with mentors if they
choose to go through the admission process.
The women say they have heard empty promises before.
In the last few years, community members say they have had conversations with
police Chief Bill Blair and the board’s Jim Spyropoulos and nothing has
They’re skeptical, but their resolve has been hardened.
On Sunday, after handing out flyers in Jamestown, Adan headed to a meeting for
“Now we have a group that will not stop until systemic change will happen on
every level,” she says.
Habiba Adan, whose son Warsame Ali was shot and killed on Sept.18, is seen
Sunday with a Somali group that is advocating for change in their community in