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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 4: Dreamchild

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 13, 2003

Her husband, who knew his way around bureaucracy, got them all visas to the United States, and they spent everything they had to fly to New York City. They went to Buffalo and crossed over to Canadian soil in July, 1989, carrying nothing but a few bags and a framed wedding picture, and declared themselves refugees. The children spoke some English, with heavy accents, but their mother none at all. On the ride to Toronto, she watched the taxi driver speak into his radio and worried they were being kidnapped. In the back seat was Fahima, springy curls down past her shoulders, at 11.

Their story was by no means the worst. In those years, a flood of Somali refugees - including many single mothers - came directly to Canada, arriving poor and traumatized by violence and famine. Most settled in Toronto, where they are now believed to form the largest African community in Canada.

How large is unclear. The 2001 census records less than 20,000 Torontonians who named Somali as their ethnic origin, but Farah Khayre, co-ordinator at the African Canadian Social Development Council, estimates the number at closer to 60,000. People move often, she says, and may list themselves as African or be nervous about sharing personal information. The community is very young (almost half below the age of 15) and very poor, with an average income per adult of about $15,000, less than half the average for Toronto as a whole.

Somalis in Toronto have struggled to find affordable housing for their large families, Ms. Khayre says, and the parents, who see a growing generational gap, worry about keeping their children in school and out of gangs.

But in the past decade, they have formed outreach organizations and women's centres. The first Somali restaurant has been followed by about 30 more. They have begun to produce university graduates: While the three eldest Osman offspring remember being virtually alone in their first years at York University, they now see a crowd of Somali-Canadian freshmen.

In all that time, though, the community has yet to produce a doctor. There are at least two dentists, and an older, U.S.-trained psychiatrist in nearby Whitby, but Somali Torontonians have survived without a single family physician who could speak to them in their own language and relate to their largely Muslim culture. None of the Somali doctors who arrived as refugees have been able to get their foreign credentials recognized. Often, they work as counsellors or taxi drivers.

To Deqa Farah, a community mental-health consultant, Fahima's achievement is both a symbolic triumph for her young community and a practical necessity: No matter what she does after medical school, others will have an example to follow. "It means we are here," Ms. Farah says. "We are no longer a refugee community. We are citizens."

In the Osman home in Markham, Fahima's family is fast consuming a table loaded with baked chicken, rice and homemade samosas. There are at least four conversations under way.

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