They are called the ciyaal baraf, or the children of the snow. The kids of a generation who fled blood-stained Somalia two decades ago.
Their parents sought refuge across the world in a mass exodus from civil war. Many settled in Canada, mostly in Toronto, where they raised their children, often in poverty. And, as the children came of age and branched out across the country, a new kind of grief emerged.
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. Most cases remain unsolved.
The latest slaying was among the most brazen. Ahmed Hassan, a 24-year-old who’d been charged with dealing drugs in Alberta, was gunned down in Toronto’s Eaton Centre. His public death has nudged this grief into the spotlight and renewed calls from Somali community leaders for governments to help stop the bloodshed.
Ultimately, the shooting has forced the country to confront the vexing question of why so many of these young men who go west end up dead.
Western dream a nightmare
The Somali-Canadian community may be rooted in Toronto, but the source of its grief is in Alberta, where at least 23 young men have died in the past seven years.
There are about 3,000 Somalis who live in or near the oil-sands city of Fort McMurray. Their community is clustered in a series of low-rise apartments tucked between a grocery store, a mall and a graveyard. They come here dreaming of well-paying jobs, hoping to send money back home and end two decades of poverty. But many lack recognized skills and end up chronically underemployed, driving cabs or working as hotel housekeepers; or they’re unemployed, as is the case with more than 300 Somalis in Fort McMurray today.
“We’re called the lost generation,” explained Warsame Adam, a 29-year-old facility manager at the Fort McMurray mosque. “We’re hit from every direction, Somalis. It’s like we don’t belong anywhere.”
Mr. Adam found meaningful work out west. Others, however, heeded a different, persistent call – that of the drug trade.
“I don’t think anybody goes there saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to go over there and become a drug dealer,’ ” said Ali Abdullahi, who runs youth programs for Somalis in Toronto and knew at least one of the men killed in Alberta. “It’s a lot of young men who go over there, look for work, and some of them may not have all the qualifications to find a job.”
But they still need to make money, said Hukun Hurur, a Somali leader in Fort McMurray. “And then they turn to other things.”
Cocaine use thrives in Alberta’s oil patch, driven by those who did find well-paying jobs. In 2010, Fort McMurray RCMP laid five cocaine-trafficking charges for every marijuana charge.
It’s a brisk trade. High-level dealers can quickly gross $5,000 a day selling crack and cocaine, making $12-per-hour labour jobs seem laughable.
“We don’t get a job. So the only option is to get money, to sell drugs,” said one young Somali-Canadian in Fort McMurray, who calls himself M.J.
“There’s something wrong with this city,” he said.
Most of these children of the snow can trace their roots to strife-torn Somalia. In 1991, armed opposition groups overthrew the ruling military government, thrusting the country into a brutal and protracted civil war.
As the conflict worsened, migrants poured into Toronto, along with other cities in the United States and Britain. Many arrived with limited English skills and few resources. In places like Toronto, where there was no existing Somali community to join, families were left to fend for themselves.
Rima Berns-McGown, a University of Toronto professor who has studied the Somali diaspora in Canada and Britain, said many parents who brought their children abroad were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – yet another challenge for young families adapting to life on a new continent.
Those who came to Canada were overwhelmingly directed to Toronto’s social-housing projects, places like Regent Park and Jane and Finch, where residents are in frequent conflict with police. And as the children of the first wave of refugees grew up, many of them faced a double stigmatization as Muslims who are black – a situation some Somalis say was acutely reinforced after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
Many of the rivalries that play out in Alberta are in fact nurtured in Toronto, where an estimated 80,000 Somali-Canadians live.
“Whatever’s going on over in Toronto, it comes over here,” M.J. said. “Everybody wants to make his money, so they’re going to shoot each other.”
The deadly pull westward among Toronto’s Somali community, according to one community source, began with one young man from the East Mall neighbourhood who got involved in Alberta’s lucrative oil-sands spinoff through a friend who was working there. When the man returned home to Toronto, he drove a flashy car, bought drinks for his friends and was rich enough to leave expensive items behind at bars and nightclubs.
The siren song of easy money was attractive to some of the young men he grew up with, many of whom were struggling to find work in Toronto. A few left to join him. Soon after, others followed.
“He really recruited a lot of people into that stuff,” said the source, a respected member of the community who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It seems like there was a chain migration. One guy left and the others followed him.”
Looking to the U.S.
When Canadian law-enforcement officials attempted to better understand this phenomenon last year, one of the places they looked was Minnesota. The state is home to an estimated 32,000 Somali-Americans, the largest concentration in the U.S. There, as in Alberta, many young Somalis have sought prosperity in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, a 10-hour drive west of Minneapolis.
The heart of Minneapolis’s Somali community is Cedar-Riverside, an enclave often referred to as Little Mogadishu. The towers of Riverside Plaza – a social-housing complex that’s long been a haven for previous waves of refugees – are now home to thousands of Somali-Americans.
Police officer Jeanine Brudenell, who was invited to share her experiences with Canadian officials, began tracking street gangs in the city’s Somali community in 2005. Gradually, she said, her role shifted to providing programs aimed at teaching Somali-Americans about their legal rights and encouraging them to report criminal activity.
Minnesota police have long been frustrated with how difficult it is to solve crimes in the Somali community: of roughly eight gang-related homicides in Minneapolis in recent years, only one has been solved, a problem Ms. Brudenell attributes to distrust of police and the possibility of retaliation. “They don’t want to be testifying or be a witness because they fear they’re going to be in danger,” she said, adding, “It’s a fair fear.”
In recent years, the force has hired two Somali-speaking beat officers who work nights in the neighbourhood, which most people say has improved safety and helped reduce conflicts with police.
“Police are usually suspicious of [a group of] black kids who are maybe up to no good walking around,” said Saeed Fahia, a community leader. “It’s possible that they’re doing nothing. So someone who knows the culture could tell you if they are up to no good or not. An ordinary police officer cannot do that.”
They also hired a civilian liaison to work with the Somali community and opened a “safety centre” at the base of one of the public-housing towers, aimed at encouraging residents to report crime.
Ms. Brudenell said that, as the department does a better job of tracking and catching gangsters, some of the most serious criminals are turning up in other cities instead. “We get calls, ‘Oh my God, we have all your people here,’ ” she said.
The Minnesota experience may not translate exactly in Fort McMurray, where the young men getting into trouble are hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from family. But law-enforcement officials share a common frustration in getting Somali community members to talk to investigators.
In one Edmonton murder case on New Year’s Day in 2011, a restaurant full of people yielded just one suspect description. Homicide detective Bill Clark complained publicly, forcing the police chief to apologize and mend fences with Somali leaders.
M.J., sitting in Fort McMurray, said he’d never speak to police.
“Where’s my benefit, if I snitch on you? I put my life in danger. I have no benefits. They do nothing for me, they pull me over, because being black, and you think I’m going to go to them and tell them what’s going on?”
Somali leaders want program funding for their summer camps, soccer and basketball leagues, or a community centre – anything to engage young Somali men, specifically. Existing programs are piecemeal, and rely heavily on volunteer hours at Somali organizations. “The only way we can stop them from joining these bad activities is to make them busy with positive programs,” said Bashir Ahmed, executive director of Edmonton’s Somali-Canadian Education and Rural Development Organization.
But those don’t always work. Mr. Hassan was once in one, writing he was“planning to be productive member of society.” He was later charged with cocaine trafficking before being gunned down earlier this month.
Five years ago, community leaders produced a provincially funded report on the risks facing Somali youth in Edmonton. One of the co-authors was Abdullahi Roble – Mr. Hassan’s father – who doesn’t want to talk about his dead son. “There’s nothing to prove, nothing. … We will not gain anything about him. He’s dead, that’s it. That’s enough for me,” he said.
But for those who get caught up in the game and survive, the challenges are far from over.
Saeed Ibrahim Jama’s parents fled Somalia’s turmoil and went to Saudi Arabia, where he was born, before eventually ending up in Canada in 2001. They lived in poor neighbourhoods in Toronto and Winnipeg and Edmonton, and Mr. Jama and his older brother both fell into crime.
Mr. Jama served 27 months for getting caught with drugs he planned to sell. Since being released, he said he’s turned his life around, but was denied citizenship. Last Wednesday, Canada served him a final deportation notice. On July 22, barring a last-minute legal intervention, he’ll be deported to Somalia, a country he has never set foot in.
The federal official ruled he faced no “significant personalized risk” by returning to a country where it recommends Canadian citizens “avoid all travel.”
Mr. Jama is repentant. “I completely understand why they want to deport me. I understand it. I did what I did,” he said this week. But, he said, the government is making it impossible for his generation to make amends.
“I’ve been working, doing everything I can. I don’t make no trouble. But they don’t see it,” he said. Once part of a middle-class family that began to struggle, he says he got into drugs for the money, and because of peer pressure. His oldest sister is a university graduate, and another sister is in university. But he and his brother, the ciyaal baraf, have criminal records.
“I was young, and I didn’t take it seriously,” he said, adding some advice for other young Somalis. “They need to look at what their parents went through to get them here. But no one sees it like that.”