In January 2010, Liibaan Ali paid a trucker in the United States to drop him off near the border. He walked into Canada at Emerson and filed a refugee claim.

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This article was published 22/4/2016 (2224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In January 2010, Liibaan Ali paid a trucker in the United States to drop him off near the border. He walked into Canada at Emerson and filed a refugee claim.

No one could have guessed the Somali-born asylum-seeker would one day be the person hundreds of Syrian refugees in Winnipeg can call for help in the middle of the night.

Ali, who grew up in Syria, started volunteering at the Islamic Social Services Association this winter when the number of Syrian refugees arriving in Manitoba soared. Now he’s working with ISSA as its refugee liaison to Manitoba Housing and Community Development and manning an Arabic phone line funded by the Red Cross that refers Syrian refugees to available services in Manitoba.

Having a black man speak to them in Arabic with a Syrian dialect has come as a surprise to many, said Ali. "They’re so happy when I tell them where I’ve lived," said the man from a suburb of Damascus. "They say ‘At least we have someone who can understand us’ and ‘You get me, man.’"

Ali gets them, all right. His family fled civil war in Somalia in 1991 when he was 12 years old. At first, they went to Nairobi but were persecuted for being undocumented refugees. After a few months, they moved to Syria which, for a time, had opened its doors to citizens of Somalia, he said.

"We had opportunities there — the right to education and health care," said Ali. "I love the Arab people I grew up with."

Ali trained as a nurse, then went on to study anesthesiology. While in university, his family was offered refugee status in the U.S. He decided to stay where he was. But as more family and friends left Syria, he missed them and travelled to the U.S. in 2001. He made a refugee claim and was granted temporary status.

He lived and worked there for nine years: in Baltimore, for Dell in Nashville and at Handi-Transit in Phoenix where he met his wife, Sahra Farah. Her family fled Somalia’s civil war when she was a little girl. She had married an American and was working at Walmart after the man divorced her, leaving her status in limbo. She and Ali married and had a baby girl, who is a U.S. citizen. When Ali’s immigration to the U.S. was rejected, he faced removal to Somalia. His wife’s green card would expire in a year.

"We had to make some big decisions."

He headed for Canada, paying a "Latino trucker" $1,800 to take him. In Winnipeg, human rights lawyer David Matas agreed to take his case. He obtained a temporary work permit. His wife and daughter joined him. He worked as a security guard, with autistic kids for New Directions and at a meat-processing plant in Brooks, Alta. He and his wife had two more daughters.

Canada at first rejected Ali’s refugee claim. Matas appealed the ruling. After nearly being sent to Somalia where he hasn’t lived since he was 12, Ali was allowed to stay.

His wife was next. Her 2013 Immigration and Refugee Board claim was heard by Gordon C. McRae, a former RCMP officer with a record for rejecting most of the cases he heard. McRae was included in an Osgoode Hall law professor’s 2012 study of all the 2011 IRB decisions. It found the person hearing the case more than anything determines whether or not refugees will be allowed to stay in Canada.

At Farah’s hearing, she testified she feared being sent back to Somalia because it’s unsafe — especially for women in a country terrorized by Al Shabaab extremists and where female genital mutilation is common. Farah sobbed as she told McRae she feared most for the health and safety of their three daughters. His response was Somalia had become a much more peaceful place, and she’d be no less safe there than any other Somali woman.

He rejected her claim. It was appealed, using reams of articles and information about the violence and instability in Somalia. Farah was granted refugee protection in Canada. Now she and Ali have a young son, their oldest daughter is in school and the girls are thriving.

"They like to shop — they love Ikea," Ali said after spending his day off there with his family.

Ali is on contract with ISSA as a go-between and interpreter working with landlords renting to Syrian newcomers and helping the refugees with their resettlement. He has had calls in the middle of the night, he said. Once it was from a landlord complaining about little kids running up and down the apartment hallways and outside shoeless.

He was threatening to call police, Ali said. He got up and went there and explained to the family they can’t let their kids run off steam like that. "If they see kids running outside without shoes, they’ll call social services."

Ali said he’s "heartbroken" by the Syrian refugee crisis, and he’s happy and grateful to be helping families who fled the country that once helped his family.

One of the agencies helping the refugees is grateful to have Ali and his experience.

"Liibaan (Ali) has been a godsend at a time when we needed someone to assist and help with the Syrian refugees," said ISSA executive director Shahina Siddiqui. "(He) turned out be the best fit; he speaks Arabic, lived and studied in Syria and had the refugee experience," she said.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.