On the morning of July 24, 2016, a shaken Nimao Ali surprised herself by picking up her cellphone and shooting a video.
From the balcony of her Hilda Street apartment, Ali aimed her camera below at two Ottawa police officers crouched next to a handcuffed and bleeding Abdirahman Abdi. Only later did Ali notice her six-year-old son at her feet, watching the scene.
“I couldn’t believe it. I had to record it to believe it,” said Ali in an interview last week.
Abdi, badly injured during an arrest, would later be declared dead in hospital and Ali, who handed over the video to investigators, would become a spokeswoman for the Abdi family. Last March, Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault in Abdi’s death. His trial is scheduled to begin in February 2019.
It was the first time Ali took such a video and she hopes it’s her last. But it was not the first or last time she’s been an advocate for Ottawa’s Somali community.
Ali came to Canada as a 19-year-old bride who could not speak English. Since then, she has been a cultural awareness advisor to the RCMP, talked to new recruits with the Ottawa police about Islam and Muslim women, and spoken at international conferences, as well as worked on aid projects in Somalia and Kenya.
Now she has been appointed as an advisor to the external implementation steering committee of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services’ Ontario Black Youth Action Plan.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said the mother of three. “If we are blacks and Muslims and immigrants, we have the same hopes and dreams for our children. I made it my mission to help solve the problem.”
Black youth are over-represented in the child welfare system and leave high school at greater rates than white students. For example, 23 per cent of black students in Toronto are “early leavers” compared to 12 per cent of white students, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
Across Ontario, black youth are unemployed at two times the provincial rates. Although most school boards, including those in Ottawa, don’t collect race-based data, the Toronto District School Board released 2006-2007 figures indicating that black students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students.
Ali was a survivor of Somalia’s civil war, arriving in Ottawa in 1992 to join her then-husband, who was a student. She was married at 17 in Somalia, mostly because she was eager to get out of the home of her adoptive parents, where she had been lived since the age of three to get an education. In Canada, she found herself pregnant at 19 with no English language skills, still rattled by the trauma of war.
But for every obstacle in Canada, there was a way around it, she learned. “I could go to a high school with a daycare downstairs,” said Ali.
Ali finished high school in 1995. She went to Carleton University to get a degree in computer mathematics, graduating as a single mother with a second baby on the way and no apparent career path. But she had two skills that found a home — she spoke Arabic and she understood math. Ali became a teacher at Ottawa’s private Abraar School, a career that lasted more than a decade.
Ali believes education is the key to success. But understanding the education system in Canada is difficult for many Somali parents, she said. Ali credits her own success with the survival skills she honed through her life. But she said her son has encountered more obstacles, even though he had all the advantages of being born and raised in Canada.
Ali noted a difference between her son and daughter’s paths in life. She recalled being shocked when her 14-year-old son was stopped by police while she was waiting nearby in a car. At school, he would be disciplined more quickly than his white counterparts for the same infractions.
“My son would take my car and the police would stop him once or twice a week. My daughter has never been stopped,” said Ali. “There was a problem. But you can’t put your finger on it.”
Somali boys carry “layers” of problems, said Ali. They are Muslim and they are black, and there is the assumption that black men are drug dealers and gangsters. At the same time, a majority of Somali immigrants in the 1990s were single women with children. There was both a loss of the father figures and mothers who were not accustomed to advocating for their children, she said.
Ali’s son struggled to graduate from high school while her daughter sailed through and into university. Her son eventually moved to Africa and is working in Kenya with his father, who has a real estate business.
Ali already has some idea of what she wants to suggest to the Black Youth Action Plan, announced by the province in February as part of a four-year, $47-million plan to support black youth and their families in schooling, post-secondary education and employment, as well as youth in conflict with the law. She would like to see more male teachers in elementary schools, mentorship programs, teaching parents about helping their child navigate the Canadian education system and awareness on the part of the education system to recognize when a child is struggling.
“We have to make sure that every child reaches their full potential. In a classroom, when I see some kids are acting up, I can see it’s because they haven’t had a proper breakfast. It’s being proactive to minimize the damage,” she said.
Most of all, she wants acknowledgement that there is a problem.
“I have lived in this country for so long that I see both sides,” said Ali. “I have been fortunate. I use my struggles as the fire to fuel the opportunity to change. I refuse to feel sorry for myself. I refuse to see people as evil. We all want the same thing. We have to get to know each other. I want my children to be safe and secure. I’ve seen the harm of the civil war. I want this country to get better.”