From Somali refugee to Canadian MP

Ahmed Hussen made history in the election when he became the first Somali-born Canadian elected to parliament.

Hussen moved to Canada in 1993 following a civil war in his country of birth, Somalia [Fadi Alharbi/Al Jazeera]
Hussen moved to Canada in 1993 following a civil war in his country of birth, Somalia [Fadi Alharbi/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed Hussen, who came to Canada as a teenage refugee, was last month elected as the country’s first Somali-born member of parliament.

Since he arrived in Canada, fleeing as civil war ravaged the Horn of Africa nation in 1993, he has had to juggle odd jobs to realise his dream: a university education.

His ambition to complete his studies and a love of social work led him to a career in politics.

Hussen says he is eager to work with the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other MPs to support a government plan to host 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of this year, giving them full settlement and healthcare benefits.

Hussen spoke to Al Jazeera about his roots, his ambitions and what his party’s electoral victory will mean for Syrian refugees.

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to move to Canada and when?

Ahmed Hussen: I landed in Canada on February 27, 1993. The reason I came to Canada was to join my two older brothers who were already here.

I felt that joining them was the safest thing to do. It’s extremely hard to move to another country and to start over again, but it’s harder when you don’t have anybody there. It was a bit easier for me to join family members.

I left Somalia as it was torn by a civil war, but my immigration to Canada was not my own decision, as I was 16 years old at that time.

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Al Jazeera: What was the situation in Somalia like before you left?

Hussen: The situation was unbearable. Every time we expected a ceasefire, we realised that the fighting would continue. After I landed here in Canada, I kept following the news of the conflict and I realised there was no sign of an end or resolution.

Somalia is still going through problems. The situation may change as to who is fighting who, but the violence has been continuous until now.

Al Jazeera: What were your ambitions when you came to Canada?

Hussen: I wanted to complete my studies in school. My biggest fear was not to finish my high school and missing admission to a university.

My mother was very focused on education and passed that value on to me. As soon as I settled here in Canada, I started to go to the public library to borrow books, to do some mathematical exercises and continue to improve my English.

One of my brothers in Toronto, at that time, was single so I moved to his home where he had two roommates; a friend and a cousin of mine. My brother was a truck driver and the other roommates were cab drivers, so it was not conducive for me as a student to live with them.

They suggested I move to Hamilton, Ontario, to live with my other cousin who was a student at Mohawk College there. As a high school student living with a college student was better than living with a truck driver and cab drivers.

I graduated from high school and I stayed in Hamilton until 1997, before I returned to Toronto to live again with my single brother Mohammed Hussein in Regent Park.

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I worked at a gas station for almost a year between 1997 to 1998 to save money in order to pay off my university tuition fees. I couldn’t get a student loan from the government of Ontario because my immigration case was not completed. I was still a refugee without a permanent resident status in Canada. So I worked very hard at the gas station with a minimum wage payment of $6.85 an hour, with overtime hours sometimes.

I applied to join York University here in Toronto and I got admission. Thereafter, I quit my job as I had saved enough money to pay my university tuition fees in full for the first year.

In my second year of university I had become a permanent resident of Canada, and I applied for a student loan through Ontario Student Assistance program “OSAP”.

Al Jazeera: The Syrian refugee issue was a big part of your campaign for the federal elections in Canada. What are your plans to host Syrian refugees in Canada?

Hussen: Our commitment is to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of this year. We will bring refugees from countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

I want to make it clear, Prime Minister Trudeau is committed to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before 2016 because it’s an urgent situation.

Other countries have done more than us with fewer resources, because it’s a human issue.

As a government, we want to help Syrian refugees to settle before we encourage them to integrate. Settlements services have to be funded adequately.

The previous government had cut settlement funds for refugees, they also cut refugee healthcare. On our side as a new government, we will restore healthcare for refugees, because that’s inhuman to cut that. Even the federal court of Canada has called it inhuman and cruel punishment. We can’t cut healthcare for refugees or to cut healthcare for expectant women and children. That’s not acceptable.

I feel proud to stand for a party that will do that in government. Not only Syrian refugees would benefit from that, but also all refugees regardless of the country they come from.

It has been more difficult for immigrants and refugees to become Canadian citizens under the 10-year rule of the Conservative party, but Canada and Canadians in general have been very open in welcoming people, and eventually leading them to the path of citizenship.

I am proud of my heritage, but I am also proud to be a Canadian citizen.

Source: Al Jazeera


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