The New Expats

Many Somalis came to Canada looking for a better life. They found it back in Africa
Bashir Mohamed is the very picture of a proud proprietor, flitting sociably between tables at the Mug, his chic bistro in the heart of Nairobi’s business district. It is Friday evening, and the city’s young professionals have arrived en masse to decompress over steaming lattes (no alcohol is served, this being a Muslim establishment). The wall-mounted flat screen television is tuned to Ghana’s World Cup game against Uruguay, and every so often the entire place heaves with despair as the home team misses another goal — not that everyone in the café is Ghanaian. Many are Somalis, like Bashir, but then the entire continent’s hopes are pinned on the Black Stars. More unexpected, perhaps, is that most of the Somalis here have come to Kenya by way of Canada.

Bashir has this in common with his patrons, too. The now forty-five-year-old moved to Toronto in 1990, followed shortly by the rest of his family, to escape the growing unrest in Somalia. He enrolled in the DeVry Institute of Technology’s computer information systems program; four years later, eager to put his newfound skills to use, he headed out into the job market, but turned up little. As a member of Canada’s Somali community, one of the largest outside Somalia, I’ve heard variations of this story for years. Since the early ’90s, tens of thousands of Somali refugees have converged on the GTA in search of the Canadian dream, but while they have reasonably good access to education, unemployment at last count was 22 percent, well over the single-digit statistic for the region.

Oh, Canada?Canada is often second choice — or worse — for immigrantsIllustration by Patrick KylePatrick KyleCanadians take pride in the belief that their country is more welcoming to immigrants than the United States is. But a recent Gallup poll shows that most newcomers would prefer to land south of the forty-ninth parallel: more than two-thirds of immigrants in their teens, and over half of those aged twenty-five to fifty. Some studies suggest that children of immigrants face greater harassment at school, while others indicate that the trouble is Canada’s minimum wage. But the paramount problem seems to be an inability to recognize and incorporate the skills of immigrants into our economy and culture. “All immigrants should think five times before making the decision to move here,” writes one commentator on Edar Aihil’s Canada Immigrant’s Blog. “Canada has the best-educated pizza delivery guys in the world. Cool, isn’t it?” — Tavish McGregor
After two years of underemployment, Bashir decamped to Washington, DC, where he was hired as a software engineer, earning double what he had in Canada. Eventually, however, he began to hear stories about Somali expats capitalizing on tremendous business opportunities in Kenya, friends who’d figured out how to turn the country’s favourable exchange rates, cheap labour, and minimal competition into lucrative self-employment. He relocated in 2008, and now owns the Mug as well as a share in Premier Fitness Centre, targeted at Nairobi’s yuppie class. It’s the classic story of an immigrant making good, but is it a Canadian success story? His expression betrays a lack of patience for sentimentalism. “Citizenship is great,” he says, “but at the end of the day I want to be productive. How can I be productive if the opportunities are not there?”

The Yaya Centre is a popular North American-style mall, complete with marble floors and canned music, located far from the Mug in one of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs. When I finally find my way to the Alexander café inside, Bashir’s younger brother Fathudin is waiting for me. He is lanky, like his sibling, but more soft spoken, and his glasses give him an air of professorial gravitas. “Moving to Canada as a young man was an exciting thing,” he says, between sips of the ubiquitous coffee. Having discovered a passion for international development while volunteering for the Somali Youth Association of Toronto, he went on to study political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. He had trouble finding work after graduation and moved to the US; two years later, master’s degree in hand, he returned. “I always wanted to work at a place like CIDA or Foreign Affairs,” he says — but he also had a wife and kids to support, so he took a job with Capital Taxi. “Ottawa being a government city, I used to meet a lot of bureaucrats that way,” he recalls. “I’d keep a stack of resumés in the glove compartment, just in case an opportunity presented itself.”

Few fares were surprised someone so educated was driving cab, and some even offered to help, but nothing ever panned out. “I remember reading a newspaper article that claimed 60 percent of government jobs are gotten through family and friends,” he says, as his cellphone lights up for the umpteenth time. “So you can imagine what your chances are if you are new to Canada.” A fellow Somali Canadian recommended him for a position with Mercy-USA, a Michigan NGO that provides health care, nutrition, and clean water to marginalized communities around the world. Today he is director of the agency’s operations in Kenya and Somalia.

Despite everything Canada turned out not to be, he apparently still has a soft spot for this country. “That is where I went to university. That is where I got married. That is where I had my two children,” he says. We climb into his gleaming SUV. “You don’t get everything you want in one place, in one country.” But he admits that the longer he lives in Kenya, the less connected he feels to his former home. He dreams of retiring in Ottawa. “Maybe one day you will buy a cottage, the quintessential middle-class Canadian experience,” I say cheekily. He laughs. “Yes. Who knows? We will see.”

4 comment(s)

AnonymousNovember 09, 2010 05:37 EST

This article is timely and telling. As Canadians we pride ourselves as being the most welcoming place in the world, so much so we now believe that \'foreigners\' are taking advantage of our generosity. This sentiment is fueled by over the top government rhetoric about \'bogus refugees\' and increasingly vocal anti-immigrant comments couched as bringing balance to our immigration system by groups like the Fraser Institue and the newly established Institute for Immigration Reform (not sure of exact name).

What we fail to grasp is that many educated, skilled immigrants are choosing other countries over Canada in the first place, or leaving after being here for a while for other places where their skills and expertise are recognized and valued. We will continue to deskill and underemploy the world\'s brightest who come here unless we figure out a way to open up the market place to new immigrants who may look and sound different from the mainstream majority.

AnonymousNovember 12, 2010 09:35 EST

This is the most fair article I have ever read about how Canada treats to its new Canadian citizens. Canadians only brag about their country. We always say bad things about the USA. Everyone knows that USA is THE best country ever existed on human history - ALL OTHER COUNTRIES, INCLUDING CANAD, ARE JEALOUS OF USA. Of course, USA is not perfect. But Canada only gives opportunities to its white citizens. What is the difference between Somalia and Canada???, I wonder. Somalians are fighting among themselves because they have different tribes. Well in Canada the White tribe is flourishing while other coloured tribes are expected to behave well and be happy for being second class citizens. Canada should think like a world leader and a developed nation; not like a developing country. Whites must accept that it is better for all if all Canadians have equal opportunities. Canada needs AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, -NOW. Otherwise CANADA will be like a developing country in a decade. The best investiment is human investiment. Look how South Korea is doing. Barely 15 years ago, South Korea was one developing countries and today is among the most developed nation. Education and investment to its citizens made the difference for South Korea. Canada should look itsself in the mirrow and smell the coffee. Canada is a very racist nation that needs to accept that reality. Canada is about 100 years behind the USA in terms of equal opportunity. Thanks WALRUS.

AnonymousNovember 19, 2010 07:46 EST

Bashir's story has some lesson to teach immigration policy maker, provincial and municipal authorities in charge of the integration of new Canadians. Instead of having scolars driving taxes and delivering pizzas, any honest canadian would like to see them going any where they can be much more useful for the global community.
But, I would be careful in making comments leading to think Canada does not offer opportunities to Immigrants. Bashir was unlucky. The article is not showing when he graduated in computer information program systems. If he graduated in the middle 1990s, the high tech industry was booming in Canada. If he graduated between 2000 and 2005 that industry was going down and in that case, he was not alone, because many Canadian lost jobs from the high tech companies.
For Fathudin, I can say that he graduated in an area where it's obviously not easy to find a job in the private sector. Those who keep on competing get lucky in the federal, provincial or municipal governments. I know many visible minorities who have been employed by the federal government, but a lot remains to be done in terms of equity in hiring immigrants especially visible minorities. WE NEED TO PUSH OUR GOVERNMENTS TO MAKE MORE CHANGES AND ESTABLISH EQUITABLE RULES OF HIRING. Community leaders must address the issue continuously through meetings. They must engage the MPs on the federal and provincial level.
In general, I found that immigrants who studied in the field in demand in Canada get employed quickly. It is the case of immigrants who're in health field and social workers. The rest of Canadian Immigrants who have degrees or diplomas in "not in demand" fields or professions, suffer alot, probably as well as mainstream Canadian in the same situation.
I'm also an Canadian Citizen from Africa, self-employed. For me, Canada is still a land of opportunity, welcoming and which I can still strongly recommand people to come and test it, and if "it doesn't work", it's better to quit and move in some other places before falling into depression. As Colin Powell said "A dream doesn't become a reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work". Nothing is given anywhere in the world. Instead of blaming Canada, we have to return also the blames on ourselves for not raising our voices, for not participating in the election of a party or people who can serve our interests.
I'm quite sure that Bashir and his brother have got something from their Canadian citizenship.

charlesDecember 06, 2010 10:46 EST

It seems that the last commentator talks as if immigrants don’t try hard enough or they are at fault when they don’t get their fair share of jobs in the public sector. As much as I agree that many immigrants don’t integrate well, Bashir and his brother have tried their best to become more productive by educating themselves but it is clear that the system failed them. I mean come on; one brother even did his masters and now successfully running an American NGO in east Africa.

In addition, contrary to what the commentator alluded to, I didn’t sense from the article that the brothers said that they don’t appreciate their lives and experiences in Canada. In fact, Fathudin says "That is where I went to university. That is where I got married. That is where I had my two children,” He also talked about the fact that he wants to retire in Ottawa of all places but sadly, Canada isn’t able to retain such skilled people.

Also, you can’t tell me what Fathudin studied isn’t relevant in terms of working with the government. I know a lot of people who work with the government (provincial, federal and municipal) and most of them studied social sciences which is what Fathudin studied. The problem is, and this is well documented; visible minorities and immigrants are very much under represented as government employees. So my immigrant African friend, let us point the finger where the problem lies and not at the victims.

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