When my father left to visit Turkey, Kenya and Somalia in December 2019, China had not revealed that the novel coronavirus could be transmitted between humans, and the World Health Organization wouldn’t declare COVID-19 a pandemic until March.
With growing anxiety I watched as images and reports from Italy, where the next major coronavirus outbreak occurred, began to surface — overtaxed hospital systems, a shortage of ventilators, and an increased police presence for all citizens. But truth be told, it was my family doctor that put COVID-19 into sharp perspective. During a regular check-up, she detailed accounts that she had heard from other physicians across the world. Canada was slow to catch on, but the medical community was terrified at what the future would bring.
This increased the urgency I felt and spurred me to action. I spoke with my dad on March 13, 2020. We began to organize an earlier than planned return home. Prices for flights had skyrocketed, with one-way tickets starting at $3,000 CAD , quadrupling in price seemingly overnight. Many flights back from East Africa required a stopover, often in places in Europe such as the Netherlands, U.K., and Germany. The unfolding of COVID-19 and the possibility of mandated 14-day quarantines in these regions felt even more trepidatious. However, like many others travelling, we were caught in how rapidly the pandemic unfolded.
On March 16, Canada closed its borders to anyone other than Canadian citizens, permanent residents and U.S. citizens. On March 17, Kenya closed its borders to Somalia and Tanzania. And almost before we could blink, on March 18, Somalia closed its borders and banned all international flights. Five short days later, without any chance of booking a commercial flight, we were left waiting for Canada to provide us with updates on how they planned to repatriate Canadians stranded in Somalia.
My dad had only a short supply of his medication left, and was considered high risk for COVID-19 because of his age and pre-existing medical conditions. I began to hear local rumours that international NGOs were quietly evacuating their healthcare staff on private planes. It also became increasingly clear that Somalia did not have the health infrastructure necessary not only to mass test but to provide life-saving support to those who became ill.
If we do not know our power, and advocate for ourselves, no one will step in to help us.
I spent weeks sending emails and making phone calls to request consular assistance from the High Commission of Canada in Kenya. I pleaded for updates on an evacuation flight. Along with members of my community, I wrote letters to Members of Parliament and to every single member in the Cabinet of Canada. I reached out to highly respected journalists and agreed to do media interviews. Within days there were pictures of my dad and me on news outlets, links circulating through list servs and hundreds of retweets. Somalis contacted me from around the world to share that they too were in the same predicament: our parents had gone to visit and we couldn’t get them home again. Together, we continued to put pressure on various levels of government, bureaucracy and media institutions.
Nearly every official I spoke with reiterated to me that the travel advice from the Canadian government had been to discourage any and all travel to Somalia and that it was in fact the highest level of warning. The travel advisory for Somalia makes clear that anyone there should “leave immediately” and “the security situation in Somalia is extremely volatile and the threat of domestic terrorism is high, particularly in Mogadishu and south-central Somalia.”
The underlying question was really, why did they go to this violent place in the first place?
The 2016 Census notes that “international migration accounts for more than 80% of the population growth in Canada.” Diaspora communities who come to Canada by way of international migration maintain deep roots in their countries of origin and participate as active members. For a country like Somalia, this may mean contributing to Somalia’s economy, where remittances make up approximately 1.4 billion yearly, 23 per cent of Somalia’s gross domestic product; fundraising to contribute to relief efforts; maintaining cultural archives and history; and engaging in rebuilding efforts despite great risk.
In Asha Siad’s recently released documentary Memories of Mogadishu, Somalis recount their experiences fleeing Somalia and resettling in countries around the world. In it, Dr. Hersi Mohamed Eyow recounts how a former patient from his Somali practice approached him in a coffee shop in Canada. “I could not find a single person who recognized me other than those who remembered me back home,” he shared. Many Somali-Canadian elders who had grown up on the sandy beaches of Mogadishu or the hot humidity anywhere in the Somali territories had no choice but to leave for the harsher winter climates in their new home of Canada. Many could not have known it would be years before they could return, as is the nature for those fleeing war. To travel back to Somalia meant an opportunity to re-engage with their memories and feel visible, seen and connected to their language, birthplace and family.
Global Affairs Canada asked questions about my family’s ability to afford the flight - I reassured them we would pay by whatever means necessary — not once, not twice, but multiple times. They did not believe that I could pay. In their view, all Somalis expected an immediate and free flight home. Many times officials made clear to me that Somalis should not expect a free handout from the state: they were expected to contribute.
If we do not know our histories, people will tell us about ourselves and we will believe them.
Somalis are one of the largest African diaspora communities in Canada, with an estimated 62,550 Somalis living in Canada according to the 2016 Census, an increase from 44,995 reported in 2011 (although ten years ago, Somali agencies estimated that number was closer to 150,000). Since arriving, Somali Canadians have had a complicated relationship with the Canadian state and its political actors. The Canadian state has used legislation and popular media representations to create an unflattering portrayal of Somalis that has bled over into current repatriation attempts for those abroad. In 2013, Rima Berns-McGowan wrote that Canadian media representations of Somalis in the 1990sdescribed us as “strange people with strange habits... They had multiple wives. They were both black and Muslim. They were secretive and did not talk to non-Somalis. They were keen to live off Canadian taxpayers and not pay for what they took. They were prone to violence.”
A large proportion of Somali Canadians in Toronto live below the low-income cutoff, while Somali youth employment at 70 per cent. It is often these young adults who possess the additional financial means to support their parents in moments of crisis, but their pockets, along with much of Canada’s economy, also remain stretched. Working-class Somali-Canadian families save for months to afford a vacation and likely have already experienced financial hardship. Their return airline tickets had been cancelled, and they were asked to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 for a one-way ticket home. Though Trudeau announced the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad on March 16, it was not implemented until later in April. Canadian citizens are eligible for the loan so long as their travel plans were disrupted by COVID-19 and they don’t have any other way to purchase a ticket back home. The loan is fully repayable within a six-month period, and applications are only received electronically, though applicants need to provide a physical signature on the form. The application is lengthy, full of complicated jargon and difficult to fill out.
Somali Canadians have been left with a traumatic reminder of a previous loan debt they had spent years repaying. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada provides all categories of refugees with a transportation loan that offsets the cost of their medical exam and travel expenses for resettlement. Once refugees arrive into Canada they must repay this amount in full with interest.
The Mulroney government introduced Bill C-86 in 1992, amending the Immigration Act of 1976 to deny permanent residency to refugees without identification. Because Somalia was not able to produce ID documents, many Somalis were affected by this change. Elders in the Somali-Canadian community, unable to secure permanent residency and access opportunities afforded many Canadians, would find themselves living from paycheque to paycheque. Many Somalis remember the stressful toll and the time it took them to pay back their transportation loans. Many said they were leery of taking on more financial debt from the Canadian government.
Nothing is impossible for us — we have to believe this if we want to thrive in Canada.
There was an outpouring of support when my story went live. People reached out to me to share stories of being stranded abroad without repatriation to Canada — from Iran, to Sudan to India, many Canadian citizens remain stuck navigating the kind of systemic structures I’ve outlined above. We cannot let Canada forget its responsibility to Canadians stranded abroad, and we must continue to tease out the complexities of racism where and when they appear.
We have a long way to go before Canada addresses anti-Black racism in the lives of Black Canadians. Trudeau recently stated, “Anti-black racism – racism – is real. It’s in the United States but it’s also in Canada and we know people are facing systemic discrimination, unconscious bias and anti-black racism every single day.” But from a prime minister who formed his first “diverse” cabinet with no Black Members of Parliament and sheepishly apologized for blackface photos as recently as September 2019, it’s hard to take these words seriously.
The Somali community has faced a barrage of challenges since being resettled in Canada, many of which Canada has yet to make amends for. We must continue to ensure Canada fully understands that tiered citizenship remains unacceptable. All stranded Canadians deserve to be repatriated regardless of their financial income, country of origin, race, religion or other important identity factors. We all deserve to have our loved ones at home, with us.
Nothing is impossible for us — we have to believe this if we want to thrive in this country.
We cannot and should not ever give up this belief for equity and justice.
We must not settle for the indignities, we must not follow rules.
We must break all norms and stay fast in our resolve.
We deserve justice. We deserve equity.
But most of all we deserve to be free from uncertainty, death and pain.
Canada has a constitutional responsibility to all of us here on these unceded Indigenous lands, and we have an ethical debt of justice and freedom to one other.