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Somali refugees adapt to life in Nova Scotia

Part One in a series on refugee sponsorship

Abdulkadir and Hawa’s ages are halfway between those of my sons and of my grandchildren, being 35 and 30, respectively. Their six kids range in age from three through 14. There’s a vast difference between my well-educated kids and these young Somalis who’ve spent much of their lives in refugee camps. They’ve not acquired any real literacy or numeracy skills during that time. Nor did they speak any English upon arrival in Canada late April, 2016.

They had been more or less on the run since Somalia’s civil war began in 1991. They belong to the Bantu people, originally sold into Somali slavery during the 19th century. Somalia hasn’t wanted to repatriate them now that the war is mostly over, and so our sponsorship group (Centreville-Aldershot Refugee Sponsorship, or CARS) plucked them from Camp Kakuma in Kenya after much bureaucratic wrangling.

Coming together
Like many other sponsors, we were shocked into action after three-year-old Alan Kurdi was found drowned on a Mediterranean beach in the fall of 2015. Not only have hundreds of sponsorship groups sprung up across the country, the government of Canada had brought more than 25,000 Syrians to Canada by April 1. Here in the Annapolis Valley “our” family had language classes at Acadia University all summer. Local soccer moms pick up Noor, 14, and Mohamed, 11, for their practices. Volunteers provide wheels and company for trips to the doctor, dentist, optometrist, blood tests and shopping. The town of Kentville and other bodies have given help including free access to programs. Local schools now have trained staff to make the kids feel welcome.

Luckily our committee includes a past bureaucrat who doesn’t mind filling out forms. Jennie has done an excellent job with all the government interactions and continues to keep us on track with her weekly emailed schedules for who does what. Jeff, a school principal, has largely looked after getting the older four kids registered in school, and has been able to access some school supplies.

Graham, who knows how to keep the books, handles financial matters. My background in P.R. and fundraising came in useful also. Audrey’s a nurse and Andy, her handyman husband. One interpreter is also a nurse, and we have a doctor whenever her own health is good enough. Marvelously enough, each committee member has some gift that we particularly need.

We can only guess at the family’s history, given their faltering efforts in English and our inability to speak Maay Maay, Somali or Swahili, as Abdulkadir does. Luckily we’ve found four interpreters so far, including a fellow Somali Bantu woman in Halifax. Lul has nine children, so her help is primarily given by telephone. We are getting bits and pieces of knowledge about them, such as parents left behind, as well as a brother and nephew in the States who have already come to visit once.

Before this family arrived we raised considerable money, and had a house lined up, complete with furnishings, supplies of all kinds and clothing to the extent we could guess at their sizes. Picture a young couple newly setting up house together and what they might need: everything! Multiply by four, and you’ll get our family. When donations come from many sources, there’s considerable organizational effort required in sorting, cleaning, then placing each item in the right room, cupboard or dresser. No one remembered to supply a potato peeler, dish soap, broom or fly swatter, for instance. Donated knives were dull; the pans burned food. I’ve personally gone shopping for these items for the parents, who are both surprisingly good cooks.

We’ve seen a quick Canadian-ization in terms of the food. During the first month, 10 kilos of Jacob’s Cattle dry beans were consumed. Three months later, the second bag is not yet finished. Despite our efforts to start them on healthy food, they have discovered instant cereal, chocolate bars and ice cream. They’ve also gained a real appetite for beef, chicken and fish. However, the basis of their diet is still rice, beans and corn meal, staples throughout the developing world.

Only a few of us do the hands-on stuff like shopping. For groceries, I’ve been getting my share of shopping mostly on Fridays, after Muslim prayers in nearby Wolfville. Only the father and boys go. When I asked, the two older boys told me that “No, girls don’t pray.”

My method of shopping is to dash into a store, gather what I need asap, and get out. Let’s say that Abdulkadir takes longer . . . I’m having to learn patience all over again. And when he wants a food whose name I don’t understand, there is his cell phone with Lul on speed dial.

The whole exercise takes me back to 1950, when Canada was just as foreign to my family as it is now to these Somalis. However, when the Dutch immigrants left Holland, they said goodbye with thoughts of it being forever. The only communication was by letter, with telegrams for emergencies. Today, every refugee has a cell phone. They talk to the people back home, send videos, Skype and stay in touch. Their goodbyes will not be forever. Whereas many postwar immigrants lived in hovels at first, our Somali family has a well-appointed house with secure locks on the doors. My father began with $75 in monthly farm wages. Abdulkadir and Hawa will reap Trudeau’s federal child benefit for six children, almost enough for a basic family income.

As I write this in September, it’s one day since I took Abdulkadir for a job interview at a nearby pie plant. Tomorrow I take him for orientation: the factory’s owner and management are willing to try him despite any real work experience or language skills.

A troubled land
Created in 1960 from a former British protectorate and an Italian colony, Somalia collapsed into anarchy following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre in 1991. As rival warlords tore the country apart into clan-based fiefdoms, an internationally-backed unity government formed in 2000 struggled to establish control, and the two relatively peaceful northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland effectively broke away.
The seizure of the capital Mogadishu and much of the country’s south by a coalition of Islamist shariah courts in 2006 prompted an intervention by Ethiopian, and later, African Union, forces. Since 2012, when a new internationally-backed government was installed, Somalia has been inching towards stability, but the new authorities still face a challenge from Al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Shabab insurgents (bbc.com/news).

The next issue of Christian Courier will feature interviews with refugees settling in Vancouver, B.C., as well as a look at the day-to-day work of sponsoring this family on the East Coast.


  • Anne van Arragon

    Anne lives on a farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. She is much involved with former Somali refugees now settled in Kentville.

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