Conference for Students of Somali Heritage – @TDSB @RyersonU

I had a great day with my students at the Somali Student Conference

A representative from Ryerson (forgot name will find out) did a great opening for the students.  His main message was “Make the time to succeed”.  He wanted students to understand their existing situation, find out where they are and where they need to be to succeed.  He spoke about the importance of goals and importance of stretching to where we would like to see ourselves.  He stressed the value of education as he felt you are a more engaged citizen as you are better equipped if you understand institution.  He said it isn’t just skills but the way you think and analyze the world.  Make time to succeed!

Next up was a Somali-Canadian Robleh Jama (@robjama) founder of Tiny Hearts a app development company.  His story was inspiring and heart touching to teachers and students.  He talked about being confused in high school, little goals, bad friends and just going with the flow.  With one-month left of school he was expelled giving him a real wake up call.   Working with community on workshops against hate crimes , racism,  and Islamophobia was something he enjoyed while working with youth.  It was prayer that helped him figure out his own values.  From college and then into York University exploring courses but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.  Loving the internet, entrepreneurship, technology and advertising he combined these elements for his Start Ups.  Sneaker Play, Busy Building Things and Tiny Hearts are all companies he started.

What he would do differently?  Take advantage of what he was interested in, focus on purpose, have good friends, learn to love learning and be passionate about it.  He told a wide eyed group of students that no body owes you anything, you have to earn it!  He emphasized that the real world starts now, high school is an opportunity to explore and learn now.  He told them to not limit themselves to a single profession but find what they are good at, want to do and what people will pay them to do.  He ended with telling the students “you have one life to love, take advantage, make it count.” .  His powerful words resonated with the high school students.

Students were taken to conferences led by Somali-Canadian youth who for the most part were in post secondary or recent graduates.  The teachers were taken to their own sessions that proved to be very informative.

Ahmed Ali Ilmi from OISE gave a history of Somali culture.  Showing us many of the worlds oldest living inhabitants came from that area.  It was early 1990s when Somali people started to arrive in Canada.  It was mostly Toronto and Ottawa where they settled.  He explained it was only 1972 that Somali was converted into a written language, saying majority of education was through oral means.  Xeer Law is customs between communities and Somali people have their own creation story.  A proud part of their African Islamic tradition is also performing arts.  Children are socialized through song and story and this is how tradition has passed on.  It is elders that provide community with ethics and ideas of neighbourhoods.  In Toronto he recalled during the 90’s Somali people would recognize and acknowledge each other as a way of healing in Toronto but has faded.  He found currently there is a mistrust between community and schools.  With only 7% of Canadian born Somali students actually speaking Somali the culture is changing.  Equity department showed many stats that showed Somali youth, especially boys with higher than average push out (drop out) rates.  Streaming has played a major role with a high majority of Somali males in special ed, ESL, and in locally developed courses.  More data can be found through the boards website.

The room of teachers and community activists shared stores from their schools and I felt we just were getting past the tip of the iceberg.  We came to the conclusion that something isn’t working but we need more time to fix it as a group.

Qaiser Ahmad, a guidance counselor with TDSB gave a great presentation after lunch to teachers about Muslim Students.  It was an eye opener for me as I knew of Islam but learned so much more.  He shared the 5 pillars of Islam, and how it may affect them in school and to what accommodations we should make.  He explained the differences between Islam (doing)  Iman (believing) and Ishan (being) and how Islamic Law functions.  He stressed though that there are many differences in ways people practice any Faith so you can’t just treat all Muslim students the same.  He quoted Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a single story”. (  Somali students are affected by the media and the story that is created about them.  Ahmad said never again is happening again with Muslim students and we need to change.

Donna Quan, Director of TDSB,  gave closing remarks to the students to believe in themselves, make choices that matter to them and matter to their future.  She wanted students to be proud of their heritage and recognize who they see in the mirror matters.  She convinced students that TDSB is with them and wants them to succeed.

Students throughout the day did great spoken word pieces and skits on issues facing Somali Students from immigration to violence within youth in the Somali community.  Two students  spoke at the end sharing their experiences of the day.  They enjoyed the day but also wanted to remind teachers and organizers that they can’t also just put all Somali’s as one group.  He used the example of an Easter Egg basket in that you can’t put all Easter eggs in one basket as they are all different colours so not the same.  It was good to hear from the student point of view.

My opinion was that the day was a success.  My students had a great time working with students from other schools and getting their opinions heard.  In terms of professional development we need this was just the start.  We had such great discussion but we need more time to recognize issues, plan a course of action, and implement that action with constant consultation with the Somali community.  It could be curriculum, pedagogy and making schools more community hubs where parents are welcome.


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