Somalia featured prominently in the news last month after al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that started there, attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people and wounding many others. In the wake of the deadly incident, Elaine Smith talked with Rima Berns-McGown, an adjunct professor in the Department of Historical Studies at U of T Mississauga, about Somali-Canadians, the impact the incident had on them and their experiences in Canada. Professor Berns-McGown studies the Somali community in the diaspora.
Q. Tell us about the Somali community in Canada.
A. There is a story out there in the public’s mind that Somali-Canadians are not integrated very well. The public narrative is that there is trouble with violence and drugs and a sense of a community of radicals being drawn to al-Shabaab. The media has been clinging to that narrative, even when it is not shown to be the case.
In a study I did for the Institute for Research on Public Policy called I Am Canadian: Challenging Stereotypes About Young Somali-Canadians, I conducted more than 40 interviews with Generation 1.5, the Somali youth who were born in Somalia, but arrived in Canada before they started school.
They feel strongly Somali, Muslim and Canadian and don’t see a contradiction among those things.
They are very attuned to Canada and being Canadian. Although they defined their Somali identity in many different ways, when I asked them what it meant to be Canadian, almost to a person, they said that it meant being accepting of other people, even if you don’t agree with them.
That is an extraordinary statement and very profound. It indicated that they are deeply integrated, even if they have experienced racism or Islamophobia.
Q. What did Somali-Canadians think about the attack perpetrated by a terror group that was born in their homeland?
A. They are horrified about Kenya, of course.
I spent last year on a study about imported conflict, interviewing people from eight conflict zones about how they view conflicts at home. It included 20 in-depth interviews with Somalis of all ages, and there is zero support for al-Shabaab in the Canadian Somali community.
Incidents like this become a distraction from dealing with the real issues in their community, problems that Canadian society created.
Every time something happens that involves al-Shabaab, the Somali-Canadian community rolls its eyes and says, “Here we go again.” Not only does it fan the flames of something that is not true, it takes the focus off the things that matter to them.
Q. Have Somali-Canadians been recruited by al-Shabaab?
A. About 20 young people went overseas in the late 2000s, but the reason for doing so had nothing to do with their radicalization. They were young people incensed by the political response to Somalia’s invasion by Ethiopia. I’ve been told that there were recruiting videos in the period after the Ethiopian invasion, but that was a brief window; they saw it as the force that was most capable of standing up to Ethiopia.
Young people have not gone in the last couple of years. The young people that went over didn’t come back. I imagine they didn’t feel as if they could be successful here.
Being Muslim is really important to Somalis, but no matter how they practise, as they become more religious and increase their knowledge of the religion, they recognize that whatever al-Shabaab is about, it is not about Islam. Fanaticism is not Islam, and the Somalis don’t see al-Shabaab as Islamic. It is not practising the deep love, respect and peace their religion is all about. I see it as a deep rogue band of criminals who are detracting from state building, not adding to it.
Q. Are Somali-Canadians exposed to prejudice?
A. Right now, they face a lot of racism. If you have few racist experiences growing up, you’re much more likely to shrug it off as an adult, but if you experience deep racism from authority figures growing up – at school or from the police – you can be in graduate school 10 years later and still feel the hurt.
It shows itself in different ways. Students are told at school that they’ll never make it in university and police actively criminalize young Somali men. You can create kids that are bitter, upset and disproportionately in the criminal justice system this way.
Q. How can we improve?
A. We, being Canadians in the wider society, really need to take responsibility for young people running into trouble. We have to look at our institutions and see where racism is embedded and get it out of there. We must take these structures apart; if we put our minds to it, it shouldn’t be too hard.
We need to allow for complete participation in Canadian life: political, social and economic. The more inclusive our society is, the more likely their best contribution can be is to get a good education and contribute to society here. We must make sure there are no barriers between them and success.