When conflict came to Somalia in the early 1990s, thousands of people fled the country that had been their home for generations. Many ended up in refugee camps, like the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, now a home of sorts for more than 300,000 people. Others headed further afield, out of the continent. And some of them ended up in Canada—between 1991 and 1993, Somalia was among the top three countries for refugee claimants to Canada.
While Canada certainly offered a more peaceful environment and greater access to education than war-torn Somalia, the move to this country presented a whole new set of challenges for many Somalis. One of these was forming a sense of community. The Somali population in Canada was quite small prior to the fall of Mohammed Siad Barre’s regime in 1991. Unlike some immigrant groups, which have been arriving in Canada for decades or more and have established communities where their native language, foods, and traditions are readily available, Somalis began arriving on mass only in the past two decades. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of people in Canada of Somali origin increased approximately fivefold to nearly 44,000.
Khadra and Muna Ali are part of that group. Born in Somalia, the sisters came to Toronto with their family in 1991, at the ages of 7 and 9 respectively. While Canada provided a relatively safe place to grow up, their experiences during their childhood and adolescent years were much different from that of many Canadians. As the pair grew older, they recognized the need for a place in Toronto that could bring together young women of Somali heritage. And so, with 5 other women, they founded Gashanti Unity.
“We wanted a space that was different from school, different from the mosque, different from home so we created the space where we kind of cater to ourselves,” Khadra explains.
“We wanted to connect with young women who looked like us, who had the same shared values, same home life,” Muna adds.
As Somali immigrants Khadra and Muna occupy a unique space in their society—they call themselves the “1.5 generation,” born ‘there’ but spending most of their life ‘here’. As Muna explains, it means they never quite feel at home in either community. There is a constant balancing act. As soon as people see her name, they start trying to decipher where she’s from, and she points out for Khadra, who wears a hijab, there’s a more visible element of being “othered.”
“We’re so new to this as a community, I think we’re so blindsided by certain discriminating things that were happening,” says Muna. “We just came from war, we’re just resettling, and now I have to understand I’m part of the black community. Somalis are just Somalis where they come from.”
Gashanti was thus formed as a support network. The founders realized they shared a number concerns from dealing with OSAP to family problems. “We decided to continue the conversation we were having, the 7 of us with other Somali girls,” Muna says. “If we have all these questions, how many other Somali girls have those questions, and how can we facilitate a space for safe dialogue?” They sought out resources that would benefit other young women, and then shared them with their community. They make it clear that Somali girls are a diverse group, but bringing them together and sharing their experiences creates some unity, and provides support.
That Gashanti is a women-only organization is central to its mandate. “When we started out we were thinking really selfishly to be honest, but it was because men had the mosque, the mosque was where they had a little social group going, there was basketball emerging,” says Muna. “When we realized that what we were waiting for to be created was actually waiting for us to create, we kind of took that initiative.”
The women also say that having a group for women, run by women, was important because of Somali cultural practices. They say for many parents and families, it’s easier to let young women go to a space they know will be with other young women. Before they developed Gashanti, the sisters noted that Toronto Community Housing ran a girls program, however, it was led by a male facilitator and many parents did not feel comfortable with that. “It had to be homegrown, had to be something that the parents can feel comfortable and trust,” says Muna.
Since its formation in 2009, Gashanti has run a number of programs, related to athletics, arts and just facilitating conversation. They sought out and received funding from a number of organizations, enough to finance staff, equipment and a physical space in Scarborough. Currently they’re holding their second round of the “Portrait of a Lady” initiative, which provides cameras, software and training to girls, so they can tell their story through photos.
Deqa Osman is one of the women now running that program, after participating in it the first time around. She says she had previously participated in an arts program where she felt out of place, and didn’t receive the mentorship she was looking for. Gashanti was different.
“I felt like it was a very nurturing environment,” Deqa says. “It was so welcoming, everyone was so familiar. It was a safe space to really share my ideas.”
Ultimately, it seems Gashanti is about helping girls find a place where they can form connections and find a sense of belonging. While the founders, including Khadra and Muna, were all born in Somalia, many of the girls who participate in the programs were born in Canada. “We get a lot of young Somali women who were never around Somali women,” says Khadra. “This is their entry point to try and figure out who they are.” Muna adds that young women born in Canada but of Somali heritage often get asked where they’re from. “Toronto pushes everybody to own their ethnic groups,” says Muna. “That question, it’s saying you can’t be from here.”
Deqa was born in Canada, grew up in a large Somali family, has returned to Somalia twice and doesn’t feel like she was out of touch with her Somali roots before Gashanti. She says she does understand however the feeling of being torn between two identities. “I feel like any visible minority or racialized person in Canada says their heritage first and then Canadian,” she says.
There’s the opposite challenge too, adds Khadra – Somali women who don’t own their Canadianness, and don’t take advantage of being part of this society. She says Gashanti makes an effort to get women out of their comfort zones, visiting places like museums that perhaps they wouldn’t visit on their own.
Two decades isn’t very much time to create a new life and a new home in a totally new country. The first generation of kids born in Canada to Somali families is just reaching adulthood. And Khadra says the community is still trying to figure out how to work together to address the challenges they’re faced with, including mental health and gun violence.
While the role of Somali women in Canada is rarely examined, the issue of violence among young Somali men is a topic frequently highlighted in the Canadian media. A 2012 Globe and Mail story, for example, reads, “Since 2005, dozens of young men from Canada’s Somali community have been killed, most of them casualties along a cocaine-dusted corridor between the housing projects of Toronto and the oil patch in Alberta.”
Of course those tragedies affect the women in the Somali community. Khadra and Muna say they grew up in a culture that promoted the idea of women as the anchor of the family, and the impression many Canadians have of Somali women, “oppressed” by the hijab or broken mothers crying at the funerals of their sons, isn’t entirely accurate. “The image I have of women in our community, and image that exists, there’s such a disconnect,” says Muna.
There are obvious advantages in having escaped the war in Somalia by fleeing to Canada, but there are numerous struggles as well. Thousands of Somalis came to this country as refugees, leaving behind a divisive, bloody conflict, but also the only lifestyle and climate they had known. When the first wave arrived in the wake of the civil war, a Somali community had yet to be established in Canada. For many, language was a struggle.
The women behind Gashanti are working to create a stable, inclusive space for young voices to be heard, and to ease the challenges faced by all Canadian youth as well as their community specifically. They want to spur on a new generation of women raised entirely or predominantly in Canada to become leaders in the community. “I don’t know if they care about home the same way I do, and that’s okay,” says Muna. “It’s about finding belongingness in whatever space,” adds Khadra. They say Gashanti is anchored in their Somali culture, but focused on the future of their community in Canada.
Andrea Hall graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with a BA in History and Global Studies and is currently a radio producer for CBC News. Her blog series, ‘Women in War’, examines the challenges and opportunities facing women in contemporary Somalia.