Somali-Canadian activist part of wave of returnees eager to help rebuild

OTTAWA — Almaas Elman, who was to be laid to rest Friday after being killed this week in the country’s capital of Mogadishu, is the second Somali-Canadian who lost her life this year in pursuit of efforts to rebuild a country wracked by war.

Preliminary investigations show she was killed by a stray bullet this week in Mogadishu, the peacekeeping mission in Somalia said Friday, while some family members at her funeral shouted, “We want justice.”

The statement by the African Union mission said Elman was hit while travelling in a car Wednesday inside a heavily defended base near the international airport where many diplomats and aid workers have offices in the Horn of Africa nation.

The AU statement said there was no record of a weapon being fired inside the base at the time Almaas Elman was shot and other stray bullets had been reported previously. It called her death “heart-wrenching and unfortunate.”

In July, Hodan Nalayeh, a Somali-Canadian journalist who once lived just outside Toronto, was among 27 people killed in a suicide bombing in the country’s southern port city of Kismayo.

Both had moved to Canada as children, part of a wave of more than 55,000 Somali refugees who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, fleeing the civil war that engulfed the country at the time, and then its brutal aftermath.

But they were also part of another wave — the returnees.

Since a tenuous peace took hold in Somalia beginning in the mid-2000s, some who fled the war are going back to try to help efforts to sustain it.

Thousands are going back from refugee camps in surrounding regions. Others, like Elman and Nalayeh, are leaving the safety of countries like Canada.

Elman came from a family of activists. Her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, was well known in Mogadishu in the 1990s. In the midst of sectarian warfare, he and his wife focused on running community programs, including ones aimed at disarming child soldiers.

He was assassinated in 1996, and his wife fled to Canada with their three daughters in 1999. Almaas was the eldest, and over the next 10 years, all three girls, and their mother, would return to Somalia to engage in the peace-building process in part through a centre bearing her father’s name. Her sister Ilwad was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year for those efforts.

Late last year, a House of Commons committee heard that in the current Somali government, 30 per cent of the elected cabinet had Canadian connections. So did countless other officials. Two of Somalia’s past prime ministers — Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed and Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke — held dual Somali-Canadian citizenship.

“It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world that you have a prime minister who just graduated from Carleton University or Ottawa University and did a great job in Somalia,” Gamal Hassan, the country’s economic development minister and also a dual citizen, told the committee in December 2018.

“It is really something that’s unique, and we need to build on that.”

Nalayeh, the journalist killed during the summer, had landed in Alberta in 1984 at the age of seven. Her family was among the very first to arrive in the mass exit from Somalia.

Thirty years later, she would launch a television program aimed directly at capturing the experience of that diaspora, and the challenges they faced integrating into their new lives.

“A lot of Somalis have struggled with that — they haven’t embraced the culture of the new, because they’re afraid if they become too Canadian, they’re going to lose themselves,” she told the Etobicoke Guardian, a Toronto community newspaper, in 2014.

Statistics have repeatedly shown that many Somalis who arrived during those years struggled to find jobs and schooling, in part because of immigration policies at the time that it made it difficult for them to do so.

Among them was federal Liberal cabinet minister Ahmed Hussen, who arrived in Canada as a refugee and had to turn down scholarships because he didn’t have the right immigration paperwork.

He would go on to become the first Somali-Canadian appointed to cabinet.

On Wednesday, he was shuffled from his first portfolio of immigration to minister of families, children and social development.

He called the news of Elman’s death difficult to hear.

“They went back to Somalia to do what a lot of Canadians do which is to go around the world providing leadership on a lot of issues around peacemaking and helping communities to build reconstruction after a conflict,” he said.

“The Elman family has been amazing in contributing that to Somalia. Finding that news was really difficult for a lot of people, including myself.”

Nalayeh had returned to Somalia in 2018 to tell the stories of that reconstruction to the Somali diaspora around the world.

That was her mission, her family said in a statement on Facebook after her death.

“She died serving the Somali community everywhere and doing what she loved most.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 22, 2019.

— With files from The Associated Press

Stephanie Levitz , The Canadian Press

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