Ladan Affi

Traditionally Canada has welcomed immigrants and refugees from around the world, particularly those of European heritage. Although the percentage of immigrants to Canada has remained relatively steady since the Second World War, their cultural backgrounds have not. Figures published by Statistics Canada reveal that the ethnic diversity of new Canadians has increased dramatically during the past decade.

Further, within the past few decades the composition of immigrants has changed dramatically, from approximately 80 per cent from countries with European heritage to almost three-quarters from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Almost half of Canadian immigration now comes from Asia. Between 1971 and 1986 the number of Canadians who had been born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America grew by 340 per cent. Over the past two decades there has been an increase of immigrants and refugee claimants from African countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Sudan. Within a five-year period (1988-93), the Somali population in Ontario increased by 613 per cent with 70,000 Somalis living in Canada, 13,000 of whom live in Ottawa.

This chapter presents an overview of the situation faced by many Somali women, particularly married women and single mothers, adapting to life as an asylum-seeking refugee in Canada having fled southern Somalia in the early 1990s. It also describes ways Somali women have sought to overcome their adversities as well as helping other refugee groups through joint advocacy initiatives. It is based on first-hand experience as a refugee woman and a voluntary worker with the Somali refugee community in Canada.1

The chapter begins by examining the first challenge of arriving as an asylum seeker – the immigration process. It highlights how women and girls who are rape survivors face a difficult choice in deciding whether or not to reveal their experience in order to claim asylum status under Canada’s progressive, gender-sensitive legal frameworks. It then explores the challenges facing mothers, partic­ularly single mothers, and the family’s dependency on women to be the wage-earners and sources of remittance payments to relatives ‘back home’ as well as the means of sponsoring other family members, including their children, to join them – the motivating factor for many women who endure the low-status, low-income jobs shunned by most men.

Tracing some of the consequences for women of this increased economic role and responsibility, the chapter looks at the trend of domestic violence and high divorce rate within the Somali community in Canada. A link is made between marital breakdown and the loss of the extended family, which, in Somalia would normally intervene to help resolve serious or violent marital disputes. The issue of conflict between mothers and children brought up in and ‘at home’ in the diaspora is also touched on. Finally the chapter describes ways in which women and other members of the Somali community have developed self-help advice and advocacy initiatives.