Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Perspective: One flew east, one flew west

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THEY'RE identical twins, with identi­cal beginnings, who ended up worlds apart.

Both grew up in a loving, faith-based family. They had a doting, stay-at-home mom, a strict police officer dad, four brothers and a little sister.

They played soccer together in the street in front of their house in the "River Heights" of their coastal capital city.

They walked to school together every day.

In 1991, when the boys were only eight years old, civil chaos erupted in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their idyllic childhood was cut short when warlord ­run mafias divided and destroyed the city and its infrastructure. All the hos­pitals and clinics were either looted, wrecked or occupied by people who'd lost their homes.

The twins' world spun out of control and launched them on two totally dif­ferent trajectories.

One ended up a refugee in Winnipeg, getting involved in street crime, being arrested in 2002 then languishing in jail in solitary confinement for years before being de­ported to Africa in March.

He's barely making ends meet in Kenya and longs to return to Canada.

The other is making his fortune in Alberta's oilsands, working hard but earning $200,000 a year, has married and is expecting his first child next year. He longs to return to Africa and start his own business.

"Still I can remember a beautiful life before the war started," said Abdi Ibrahim, now 25. He and three of his siblings left Winnipeg to work in the oilsands.

His twin, Yassin, was sent from a Manitoba jail back to Africa in shackles, a diaper and with nothing but the clothes on his back back.

The twins' mother, Halima, remem­bers her joy when they were born.

"I was so happy and I was sur­prised," she said through a translator.

The two babies looked alike and looked out for each other. "You used to defend each other," she said to her son Abdi at her home in Edmonton, where she moved to be closer to most of her kids.

The twins had very different personal­ities, she said.

"Yassin was very, very active. Abdi was more quiet -- he wouldn't even cry." Abdi, the quiet one, remembers the day his childhood officially ended. On New Year's Day in 1991, he first heard distant artillery fire in Mogadishu. On Jan. 4, he said, it had come too close.

He and his family grabbed what they could carry, piled into a truck and fled the city for Kismaayo, a city to the south.

"We were thinking 'this is a little war and we're going to come back'," said Abdi. "We didn't go back." And they didn't make it to Kismaayo.

Rebels armed with machine guns intercepted the truck, and it ran into a tree. Abdi escaped, and was separated from his family.

He would not see them for 11 years. "I ran into the forest and hid for three days," said Abdi. "Then I went into another small town." Thanks to the kinship of members of his tribe along the way, he was able to get to neighbouring Kenya, where he earned his keep working in a restaurant.

His mom and siblings ended up in a refugee camp. His father was taken some place else. They later learned that he was killed.

"Dad was a police officer," Abdi said. "That's why they killed him. All our family got sad. Yassin got more angry." His brother has never got­ten over his father's death or his rage towards the rebels, Abdi said.

Today, Abdi makes the four-and­a- half-hour drive from work in Fort McMurray, Alta., to his home in Edmonton on his days off. He's been supporting himself since he was a preteen making his way from Somalia to Mombasa, Kenya.

His twin brother Yassin, their mom, and four other siblings left the refugee camp for Winnipeg in 1999. They moved into the tidy Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) House apartments in the inner city. Yassin received English as a Second Language training and had a kind junior high teacher who took him under her wing.

Yassin was the apple of his mother's eye. He went home after school ever day, did his homework and told his mother he wanted to be a doctor.

In school, he raised money to help bring Abdi to Canada. Resource teacher Deb Thordarson recalled when Yassin was placed in Grade 9 at Hugh John Macdonald School when he first arrived in Canada.

"We were ill-equipped to help the kids," said Thordarson, who is now at David Livingstone School. "I started to do an ESL class but I was not really trained for it."

At that time, programs to deal with the social, emotional and language needs of refugee children weren't well developed, she said.

Thordarson went to meet Yassin's mom, Halima, at their home to get a better idea of who they were and what Halima wanted for her son.

"Halima spoke no English," said Thordarson. "They sat me at this table and served me Kentucky Fried Chicken because they thought that was the food I would be most comfortable with... I was the first Canadian visitor to their home," she said.

"They were really struggling with trying to fit into the Canadian way of life," said Thordarson -- especially Yassin.

"He wanted everything right away."

Yassin was a high achiever who want­ed to perform as well as or better than his classmates who grew up in Canada speaking English, she said.

"Things started falling a little bit apart when he had to do tests and wasn't scoring as well as the other kids. If he failed the test, it was the end of the world."

She took him for counselling and, in the summer, to her cottage where her husband gave him his first motorcycle ride. After that summer, she lost touch with Yassin, who lost touch with his dream of becoming a doctor and ran afoul of the law.

'He went the wrong way one day," said Abdi. Yassin was approached by "bad people" to make some quick money, and there was no turning back, he said. In Kenya, meanwhile, Abdi had learned of his families' whereabouts from a relative in Nairobi whom the family in Winnipeg had contacted. He reunited with his family in Winnipeg in 2002.

"I was very happy to come to Can­ada." Yassin met him at the airport.

"I hugged him a minute. He seemed bigger... He was not OK by the time I came to Canada. He was not like he was before."

Yassin was charged with robbery in August of 2002 after a man was jumped from behind near Central Park and robbed then, minutes later, a clerk at the Mac's store nearby was as­saulted in another holdup. At the time he was in violation of a bail order. A list of offences piled up -- from sexual assault with a weapon to Highway Traffic Act charges including fol­lowing too close, to laundering the proceeds of crime.

Within a few months of coming to Canada, Abdi saw that prospects in Winnipeg were bleak. He moved on to Fort McMurray, where jobs and wages were abundant. His older brothers Yussuf and Haybe were working in the oilsands. Their younger sister, Rotha, gave up her plans to study dentistry in Winnipeg and followed her brothers out west.

"My mother told my sister to get married but my sister said no. She wants to buy a house," Abdi said.

Rotha, 22, is an apprentice electrician in Fort McMurray. Next year, she will be a journeyman, Abdi said proudly, adding he and his two older brothers are carpenters and scaffolders.

Abdi returned to Winnipeg often to visit their mother and take her to the remand centre in Winnipeg or Head­ingley jail, where Yassin waited nearly three years for his charges to be dealt with.

"It was remand, remand, remand," Abdi said. "I knew Yassin would get sick in jail and go crazy."

Yassin was charged with threaten­ing and assaulting guards in Head­ingley jail and poking out the eye of a prisoner. Abdi said the guards baited Yassin, who would take the bait.

"He'd say 'If I was on the outside, you wouldn't talk to me like that,'" said Abdi.

Much of the time, Yassin was held in isolation. "They put him in a confined place," Abdi said.

Yassin's aggressive side that got him in trouble in jail may have been culti­vated when he and his family were in the refugee camp.

When reached by phone in Mom­basa, Kenya, Yassin described the refugee experience as "the worst thing" that can happen to a person.

"The bandits rape women and kill people and rob people," he said.

Getting humanitarian aid at refugee camps can be a far from humane pro­cess, he said.

"To collect your ration, you have to fight your way in -- it's like a stam­pede and you get very small amounts." In Winnipeg, Yassin said, he found a good life.

"Everyone wanted to help me because they could recognize that beautiful child." He said he made one bad choice that turned his world around. He ended up in court, and said he was made an example of by the justice system.

"These people are crazy -- they're treating everyone (from Somalia) like a terrorist," Yassin said.

"If I have a dream right now it is to come back to Canada. African life is way too corrupted," he said, calling Canadians "good-hearted and polite."

His twin Abdi in Alberta has offered to send him money in Kenya and sup­port him if he decides to get married there and start a family.

"I said 'Why don't you marry a nice lady? I will send you money every month,'" Abdi said. "He said 'I wasted my time in jail. I'm poor. I don't want to depend on you.'" Abdi is worried about his brother, and sends him money and moral sup­port over the phone. "I'm his counsel­lor. I always focus on my brother."

Abdi has no intention of staying in Alberta and slogging it out in the oilsands for weeks at a time with short breaks at home in Edmonton. He works 12-hour shifts for 18 days then gets three days off.

"I want to build a home in Mombasa or Nairobi and open my own business." He is waiting for his wife Farhia to be­come a Canadian citizen first, but Abdi sees Kenya becoming the family's new home base. "It's not our country, but it feels like it." His younger sister will likely stay in Alberta, though, he said.

"She's a little more Canadian than me."

Their mother, Halima, is staying in Edmonton, too. "I'm very happy with all of my kids and they way they are except Yassin hurts me all the time, the way he is now and these problems he faces," she said in Somali as Abdi translated.

Yassin's junior high teacher, who was like a second mom to him, blames herself and the lack of adequate sup­ports for his troubles. "We need to do what we can to make sure that doesn't happen again," Thordarson said.

"We bring these families into Can­ada, we need to be damn well prepared to look after their needs and what they need to become good citizens and part of the Canadian fabric.

"I feel sick I wasn't able to do more for Yassin," Thordarson said. "You do what you can do. You learn."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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