Last week, Abdul Warsame spent an afternoon at the Khalid Bin-Walid mosque in the Rexdale neighbourhood mourning 28-year-old Abdulaziz Farah. In a fiery sermon to the hundreds gathered, he warned parents and youngsters that “it’s a matter of time until another Somali kid is killed.”
Within days, those words had come true.
Four days later, early on Tuesday, two young men were shot to death on Jamestown Cres., in a notorious west-end neighbourhood. They were the fifth and sixth Somali-Canadian men to be killed in gun violence in Toronto since early June.
He’s not exaggerating.
The spate of violence has left the Somali community in Toronto crushed, its leaders desperately seeking answers.
They have held meetings throughout the summer to understand why their young men are getting killed and how they can help keep them safe. They’ve asked federal and provincial politicians for more programs and services to help young people get through school and find jobs. They have asked Toronto Police to help.
There are an estimated 80,000 Somalis in Toronto, another few thousand in Ottawa and, community leaders say, about 3,000 in Fort McMurray, Alta.
For long, the community has battled poverty and unemployment. It tried to deal with many single-parent households. The unemployment rate for Somali-Canadians is above 20 per cent, the highest of any ethnic group.
But in 2009, it woke up to the grim reality of radicalism.
Between 2009 and 2011, at least two dozen young men from Toronto and Ottawa — and two young women — disappeared, allegedly to fight alongside Al Shabaab in Somalia, an Islamist youth militia aligned with Al Qaeda.
As the community grappled with that conundrum, news started trickling in that more than two dozen young men, lured to oil-rich Alberta with the promise of good jobs, have died in what police called an escalating gang and drug turf war.
And now this.
“We were able to turn Alberta around,” said Hussen. “Hopefully, we can do it here too, with everyone’s help.”
Warsame, who is usually soft-spoken, said his message to parents was explicit: “We are in a crisis, we need to own up to the problem. We have to put a mechanism in place to protect our young people and provide better environment for them and, most importantly, we need to understand their lifestyle. The killings won’t stop otherwise.”
He has told young people to “get out of this game and not retaliate.”
“What else can we do?” said Warsame. “Everyone knows poverty and unemployment are big problems in our community… but no one seems to do anything. Politicians hold meetings, yes, but it takes them months to get back.”
“We are doing what we can at our level,” said Warsame. “It’s ironic; we fled Somalia to give a better, peaceful life to our children. And there’s violence here, too.”
While Somali-Canadians admit the community is going through a rough patch, its leaders haven’t lost hope for their young people.
Warsame often brings him to talk to the teenagers he mentors through his program in Rexdale.
“I want better for myself,” said Mohomed. “I want to make something of my life. When you look around your surroundings and take in the environment, you want better … obviously. And in order to do better, you have to want better. That is what I tell others.”
He realizes there are challenges in the community — there are single mothers, there is poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities.
“But there is always a way out … we know that.”
With files from Jayme Poisson