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Seeking new life, finding gang life

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THEY come from a war-torn nation looking for a fresh start in Friendly Manitoba.

Yet, some African immigrants have learned the kindness only extends so far, and a failure to comply with the law can mean a ticket back home.

Justice officials have expressed concern for years about the recruitment into gangs of new arrivals to Winnipeg. They say impressionable youths are often lured into the lifestyle with promises of social status and money.

"They know when these kids are arriving at the airport. They are there right at the airport to welcome them," said Andrew Bawa, community case manager for Project Oasis, established in 2008 to help young people who have fled war-torn countries, mostly in Africa.

For some vulnerable youth, the gangs offer hope. Some youth have watched their parents -- many with a high level of education -- struggle to find work.

"They ask the question: 'What's the need? Why do I need to go to school anyway?' " said Bawa, who moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2005.

The consequences of not keeping youth out of gangs is tragic.

As a boy in Somalia, Yassim Ibrahim saw his father murdered. He immigrated to Winnipeg in 1999 with his mother and four siblings, and in less than 10 years, at age 23, he was the godfather of the Mad Cowz street gang. His criminal record included the attempted murder of a rival gang member. Ibrahim was deported back to Somalia.

"I was a beautiful kid who had a dream at one time to be a doctor. But I became a street hustler, selling crack," Ibrahim told the Free Press at the time.

A 2010 police report on the African Mafia street gang determined it's a splinter off the Mad Cowz, which first caught police attention in 2005. Officials estimate the African Mafia had 40 to 50 members and associates, but membership varied due to who was in prison, killed or deported.

Members hailed from Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia and lived mainly in Winnipeg's West End.

Const. Ryan Howanyk, who authored the report, said police are "keeping tabs on" the movement of gang members between Winnipeg and other parts of the country such as Toronto and several areas in Alberta. The African Mafia has grown to 40 to 50 members and associates in Winnipeg and grown more sophisticated, he said.

"Toronto is having the same problems Winnipeg has... Toronto is a large city with dozens and dozens of violent streets gangs," he said.

"And we're finding that African Mafia members here in Winnipeg are associating closely with different street gangs that are operating in Toronto."

Canada Border Services has increased its efforts to deport immigrants who turn to crime. Several members of the Mad Cowz and the African Mafia have been given the boot. Many have tried to fight the move, claiming they face certain death in their home country.

Some gang members facing deportation have pointed to the story of Hussein Jilaow, who as a high-ranking member of the Mad Cowz racked up a massive criminal record in Winnipeg and was returned to Somali, where he was quickly killed.

More recently, officials have said the Mad Cowz are locked in a gang war with the Manitoba Warriors, a mostly aboriginal street gang. Justice sources say the gangs were involved in at least five shootings and fire bombings in the West End in the first two weeks of 2012.

It's hard to hold on to hope with so much violence surrounding youths. But Bawa doesn't give up.

"These are people that just found themselves in a different part of the world as a result of war," said Bawa.

"It's like leaving one war zone, escaping one war zone, and coming to another war zone."

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 A4

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