Social marginalisation and racism
All of the above are only a fraction of the problems faced by Somali mothers. Housing has also been identified as a major issue. Families on welfare are asked to provide the name of a co-signer who has an income of Can$50,000 or over. This criteria cannot be met by many Somali single mothers and they have no option but to enter shelters in order to qualify for subsidised housing from the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Housing Authority. This, in turn, has led to an influx of Somalis into certain areas of the city.
Due to the increasing intolerance in Canada towards newcomers in general and towards the Somali community specifically, there has been an increase in conflict between Somalis and white Canadians who have stereotyped Somalis as abusing the social assistance system. Somalis are increasingly facing individual and systemic racism which has made their integration much more difficult. In many cases Somalis have been physically attacked and injured.
A poll in 1993 by Maclean’s, a leading magazine in Canada, revealed an increasing intolerance toward newcomers and found that 34 per cent of those interviewed said immigrants should be encouraged to ‘blend with larger society’. A poll by Maclean’s in 1990 indicated that ’40 per cent of the respondents… said that new immigrants should be encouraged to maintain their distinct culture and ways’. These contradictory messages probably reflect a state of confusion over the meaning of multiculturalism to Canadians.
Recently the Somali community has faced increasing and systemic racism in the media, from government, and from the general public. Many Somalis have been charged with collecting multiple claims for welfare in order to send money to their warlords of choice. Even though these allegations have been shown to be false, the Somali community continues to face the repercussions of such false reporting.
Self-help initiatives within the Somali diaspora
Despite the difficulties described above, the Somali community in Ottawa-Carleton has organised to assist its members. Programmes have been implemented to make life easier for community members. Some community health centres such as the Carlington Community Health Centre and the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre have hired Somali workers to do outreach and counsel Somali single mothers and the Somali community. Carlington Community Health Centre has a Somali women’s programme where the women get together, and decide on the topics to be discussed as well as who to invite as speakers. They have also attempted to recreate the support mechanism that they had in Somalia and have empowered themselves by finding out how the Canadian system works and how it can benefit them. Other governmental agencies, including the three levels of government as well as non-governmental organisations, have hired Somalis to render the services accessible and available.
Numerous heritage schools where the Somali language and culture is taught have emerged in the area. Women get together at weekends to teach each other skills and exchange ideas. Increasing numbers of Somali religious elders now do counselling in a way similar to that done in Somalia. During Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, Somali women organise locations to break the fast together and share prayers. During holidays such as Eid Al Fitr, women organise camps and picnics for the community.
Somali women have not only tried to improve life in Canada for themselves but have had a positive impact on other refugees and immigrants in Canada. In 1991 a group of Somali women in Toronto who were part of a support group being offered by the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, decided that they needed access to government housing which was not available to refugee claimants. The women did research, gathered support from other agencies and members of the provincial parliament, and then launched a lawsuit against the Housing Authority stating that they were being discriminated against. This has led to the law being changed to make all refugee claimants eligible for subsidised housing.
As the Somali community continues to face many problems in Canada, Somali women, as the majority of the Somali adult population, will continue to play a major role in solving them. Somalis have been victims of racism due to their vocal resistance to being discriminated against; and they have become scapegoats in the media, which makes them vulnerable to even worse racism and discrimination. Yet the Somali experience in places such as Ottawa has also played a significant role in policy changes that have benefited newcomers as a whole and which can be used as a model for organising Somali communities in other parts of Canada.
1. A version of this chapter was presented at the Fifth International Congress of the Somali Studies International Association in 1993, and is published in Adam & Ford 1997.