Ahmed Hussen: From Somali refugee to Canada’s parliament

REPORTED BY KALAHAN DENGA view of the Parliament of Canada taken on a snow winter day, December 6, 2016 in Ottawa.

Ahmed Hussen came to Canada from Somalia as a refugee. Now he’s the new minister of immigration.

Along with thousands of compatriots, Ahmed Hussen fled war-ravaged Somalia for a better life in Canada.An undated picture shows Yemeni coast guards checking a small boat with refugees arriving from Somalia to the Yemeni port city Aden. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around 1,500 African refugees have made it to Yemeni shores after risky voyages in rough conditions to flee civil was in their country.

Hussen’s journey took him from Mogadishu to Toronto and then on to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, where the former Somali refugee was named this week as the country’s newest minister of immigration in a reshuffle of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet.VIA Rail train leaves Union Station, the heart of VIA Rail travel, bound for Windsor on April 22, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

It was a fast political rise for the rookie politician, and will put Hussen, who arrived in Canada in 1993 as a 16-year-old, in charge of the complex portfolio that oversees who is welcomed into the country.

Friends say the lawyer and social activist will be able to draw from personal experience in his new role.

Mahamad Accord, who has known Hussen for years through his work with the Canadian Somali Congress, says his friend has not forgotten his modest roots despite walking Canada’s corridors of power.

“He didn’t change,” he says. “The people around him changed.”

Accord recalls Hussen offering him help a few years back. The Somali community in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta were struggling to tackle the deaths of dozens of young Somali men due to drug and gun violence.

He says Hussen did not shy away from speaking openly about the problems plaguing the Somali community in Canada, from high rates of poverty and unemployment to gang involvement.

But Hussen was also aware of how the community could be stigmatised, and was always careful in how he spoke and presented himself. Accord says his friend would tell him “we need to change people’s perception of us”.

“He expects high standards,” he says.

Accord admits he was sometimes jealous of the lawyer and social activist’s ability to get across a difficult message diplomatically.

It was that ability that struck former Ontario politician George Smitherman when he first met Hussen in 1999. Hussen was then fighting for the interest of Regent Park, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in downtown Toronto where he had settled with one of his brothers upon his arrival in Canada.

In 2015, he told the Toronto Star that a backlog in refugee applications for permanent residency at the time meant he could not qualify for a student loan. Living in the public housing allowed him to save enough to go to university.

Hussen lobbied to help secure funds to revitalise the crime-ridden housing project, co-founding the Regent Park Community Council.

Some long-time residents had to move out of their homes during the redevelopment and were fearful they would not be able to return; Hussen worked to ensure their interests were protected.

“There was an extraordinary tension because there was distrust and concerns among tenants,” recalls Smitherman. “Ahmed had to very carefully but forcefully represent their interests.”

Smitherman, who calls the 40-year-old Mr Hussen an “old soul”, later helped him land a job working with former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty.

“He was someone who spoke with a calmness and an informed knowledge and a maturity that defied his circumstances, both as someone who was young and someone who had taken this awesomely courageous step of leaving Africa for Canada.”