Big Idea 2012: Taking Root

Members of the police and the Somali community join forces to remove the stresses on immigrants that might lead their children to crime.

As far as Bashir Ahmed is concerned, members of Edmonton’s Somali community who get involved in the drug trade deserve justice that is both swift and terrible.
“I strongly believe that anyone who is not a citizen, or is even a naturalized citizen, who does the wrong things, breaks the law and becomes a threat to society, he or she must be deported. Period,” he says. “They are not helping their parents, they are not helping themselves, they are not helping the system. So why should we keep them here?”

In his role as executive director of the Somali Canadian Education and Rural Development Organization, Ahmed leads an initiative to keep youth in the city’s rapidly growing Somali community out of the hands of drug dealers and gang recruiters. “Parents always come up to me and say, ‘Bashir, we have to push the government to adopt this kind of policy,'” he says.

Edmonton has the largest Somali community in Western Canada, with a population estimated to be between 15,000 and 25,000. Most of its members’ experiences are like countless other immigrant groups who came before them: Many have escaped danger and poverty in their homeland to build better lives for their families in Canada, where they were drawn to Edmonton’s booming economy.

Somalis, Ahmed explains, are hard-working, family oriented, law-abiding people. But a cloud hangs over them. In the past decade, more than two dozen young Somali men have died violently in Alberta, many because of their involvement in the drug trade. Most of the killings have gone unsolved.

At the height of the violence in late 2008, three Edmonton men were shot to death in separate incidents within 30 days. As grief and anger rose, some leaders in the Somali community accused the police of not doing enough to solve the killings. Police responded that investigators were hitting brick walls because potential witnesses weren’t cooperating.

Ahmed looks back on those days of strained relations and shakes his head. “There is no phobia about the police.” The angry rhetoric of some community leaders did not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of Somalis in Edmonton, he says. Nonetheless, senior brass at the Edmonton Police Service realized that they needed to build bridges into the community if they wanted to solve these and any future crimes.

In 2010 they launched the African Community Liaison Committee, which includes leaders from most of the city’s African communities. Superintendent Brad Ward, who co-chairs the committee, says it’s opened up communication in both directions: Community members can bring concerns to the police, and the police can disseminate information to the community.

“I’ll bounce things by members of the committee, like: ‘Is this an accurate perception that I have or is there something I need to understand, a nuance or something?”

Ward recalled one case when the EPS was asked to endorse a public event put on by members of one of the city’s African communities, which he declined to identify “out of respect and appreciation for them.” (He did, however, say it was not the Somali community). “There was a speaker who represented one local ideology within that community,” he explains. “I asked some committee members if there would be any implications for the community at large if we lent any support, and I was told that yes, it could create a problem in the community.”

Ward says without that line of communication, the EPS could have unwittingly sent the signal that it had chosen sides on a sensitive political issue that it knew nothing about.

That same year, the EPS launched its Equity, Diversity and Human Rights unit, whose job is to provide officers with cultural and diversity training and reach out to various communities in Edmonton.

One thing that community leaders like Ahmed want to see is police officers of Somali heritage. Currently, there are none among the roughly 1,600 sworn members. EDHR manager Natasha Goudar agrees that, although it’s important for people to see themselves and their heritage reflected in the police service, it’s even more critical that all officers are equipped with the skills to work with various communities.

While the EPS actively encourages members of various cultural communities to join the service, Goudar says it must be careful not to pigeonhole officers from various ethnic backgrounds by assuming they’re best able to speak to people from their own communities. “When we hire that first Somali person, can you imagine the pressure they’re going to feel?” Eventually, she says, the goal is to have cultural awareness become a part of every new recruit’s training.

Meanwhile, frontline police officers are also working to develop strong relationships within the community.

“It’s coming along,” says Sgt. Chris Hayduk, a district sergeant in charge of the area around Alberta Avenue, where there’s a large African community (he’s also one of Avenue’s Top 40 Under 40). “Like any relationship, it takes time.”

Hayduk, who lives in the neighbourhood, says the Somalis living in the area have been “very positive and welcoming. My experience has been that they really want to be involved in the Alberta Avenue revitalization.”

He says his eyes were opened during a special police operation in his district last year. It was part of a plan to reduce overall violence in the city. Police and social agencies blanketed particular neighbourhoods for four days at time, smothering violence and disorder while working with residents to identify ongoing issues.

“One of the things we found out about was how members of the Somali community were being exploited by predatory landlords,” Hayduk says. “We heard about landlords showing up in the middle of the night and demanding more rent, even though the tenant was paid up. We heard about cases where people were hiding kids from the landlord because they’d demand extra money for each child.” Some tenants didn’t know their rights and, even if they did, they didn’t know what to do about it. Helping them solve problems like this, even though they aren’t really police matters, has opened a lot of doors, Hayduk says.

While police work on communication, groups within the Somali community are working on the social causes of the violence.

Most Somali-Canadians came to Canada as refugees in the 1990s, fleeing for their lives from a bloody civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. “They’re starting from scratch,” says Ahmed. “They come with nothing. They don’t know the language, they don’t know the culture.” Many are educated, but their credentials aren’t recognized, so they must take low-paying jobs. Families are large, adding to the financial burden. Many parents hold two jobs and work horrendously long hours. The children can feel caught between two cultures – their parents’ and their friends’. With all this stress, it’s no wonder some youth fall through the cracks and get into trouble.

That’s where groups like Bashir’s come in. They support families with settlement issues, language skills, job skills training and other types of support that will help them put roots down. They provide programming for kids to help them remain productive members of society. They have programs for youth that not only develop leadership, communication and computer literacy, but also teach social responsibility through community development projects in Somalia.

Is all this work paying off? It’s still in its early days, but the signs are encouraging.

Ward recalled a police event recently attended by three dozen young and adult members of a Somali association that in the past was highly critical of the EPS.

“They’re now working together with the police.”

Legit Fears?

Although we’ve dedicated this issue to making the city a safer place, it must be said that in Edmonton your chances of being a victim of violent crime are low. Zero-point-eight per cent in 2011, to be exact. To put that in perspective …

125 to one: A bettor’s odds.

300% more likely to get a three of a kind in a poker hand.

50 times more  likely of being a victim of cancer in your lifetime.

23,915 to 1: Likelihood of being murdered in Edmonton last year.

1,000 to 1: A young Canadian hockey player’s chances of playing a game in the NHL.

66,000 to 1: Your chances of drowning last year.

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