Winnipeg’s Somali community and refugee advocates are hailing the appointment of the first Canadian refugee to become an immigration minister.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, who arrived in Canada as a refugee at age 16, faced many challenges and obstacles to become a successful lawyer, MP and, since Tuesday, a high-ranking federal cabinet minister.
"For Somalis around the world, this is a proud moment," said Abdi Ahmed, director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg and a refugee from Somalia. Canadian flags will be flying in Somali communities around the world, Ahmed predicted.
"This is the senior-most Somali in any western government," he said.
Since the mid-1980s, people have been running for their lives from Somalia, escaping human rights abuses by the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre and the civil war that followed in 1991. Somalia is still unstable and unsafe. More than 300,000 Somalis are in the world’s largest refugee camp at Dadaab in Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled to countries around the world.
Now, all over the globe, they’re celebrating the success of their fellow refugee, Hussen, Ahmed said. He knows because of the global response to the story about Canada’s new immigration minister that he posted on Facebook.
For refugee kids from Africa struggling to find their place in Canada, it’s important to see someone who looks like them and struggles as they have to achieve a leadership role, Ahmed said.
"They come here and go through a lot of hurdles and issues and don’t think they can make it," said the community leader, who has received the Order of the Buffalo Hunt. "This is a huge, huge boost for the self-esteem of these kids."
Last year, Hussen visited Winnipeg twice. Before becoming minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, he met with Somali youth and encouraged them to become civically engaged.
"Some people have their hearts back in Somalia and their bodies in Manitoba," Ahmed said. "He said, ‘You need to invest yourself in civic activities here.’"
Hussen also took part in a community forum with about 200 community members in Winnipeg who called on Canada to have a targeted refugee policy for Somalis similar to ones it’s had for Afghans, Congolese, Bhutanese and boat people who fled Vietnam, Ahmed said.
"There are a lot of expectations from the Somali community," Ahmed said.
And from those who want Canada to open its doors to more privately sponsored refugees.
"For the first time we’re going to have an immigration minister who was himself a refugee when he came to Canada," said Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg. The organization receives no government funding and is responsible for privately sponsoring the highest number of refugees to Canada.
In November, the faith-based charity established a waiting list for Winnipeggers who want to sponsor loved ones. More than 2,400 Winnipeggers signed up, hoping to sponsor more than 30,000 refugees. At the same time, they signed a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to increase the number of privately sponsored refugees Canada will accept. One of the Winnipeggers who signed up to sponsor relatives, Munira Mohamed, volunteered to address the hundreds of envelopes to the prime minister by hand.
The Somali-Canadian, Denton discovered, is married to a close cousin of the new immigration minister.
He wonders if the flood of letters sent to the prime minister from Winnipeg late last year helped in the decision to make Hussen immigration minister.
Either way, Canada should still accept more refugees, Denton said. Prime minister Wilfrid Laurier said after the turn of the last century — when Canada’s population was just six million — that the country should have at least 60-million inhabitants to thrive. We’re not even close to that number in 2017 because successive governments have taken a "gated" approach to immigration, said Denton.
"We’re so concerned about protecting what we’ve got, we don’t realize the wealth of a country is not in its minerals or oil fields, it’s their people."