A group of young Somali-Canadians are looking to change the way the community is often portrayed in the media.
Project Toosoo, developed by Torontonians Hibaq Gelle and Hawa Y. Mire, is a program aimed at empowering Somali youth to learn the tricks of the media trade to take back their stories.
Participants Filsan Jama and Zakariya Ahmed spoke with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning about what they hope to accomplish with the program and what it’s taught them so far.
Matt Galloway: Last summer, there was a buzz in the Somali-Canadian community about a VICE documentary called This is Dixon. The infamous piece took a closer look at the neighbourhood implicated in the Rob Ford crack video.
In the fall, CBC’s Shoot the Messenger aired, loosely crafted around the same scandal. Many in the community say both unfairly stigmatize Somali youth.
What goes through your mind when you see your community depicted in the media?
Filsan Jama: The number one thing is that I’m hoping that it’s a positive image that’s reflected around our community only because we have this very pointed narrative of how we choose to portray Somalis in particular especially with the documentaries that you’ve mentioned. We do get a feel and a taste of what types of stories that are there in terms of association of gang violence, the age-old tales of refugee Somalis, so I’m just hoping that it’s different every time I hear that there’s media around Somali people.
MG: Are you often pleased with what you see? Are those hopes achieved?
FS: Not at all, to be quite frank. I’m not pleased but that’s why we’re here at Project Toosoo and we’re trying to show the various types of stories and different ways that Somalis are actually living here in Canada.
Zakariya Ahmed: What goes through my mind right away is this sort of anger really, this sort of helplessness at times.
I feel like the narratives are not only one-dimensional and fit a purpose and a narrative that they have created for us, I also feel like they are never Somali-driven. They don’t hire Somali people to tell these stories… A lot of the characters played as Somalis are not even Somali people. So I feel like it’s this thing that’s constantly this colonialistic thing where they tell Somali stories from their perspective as if they’re not our stories.
MG: What’s the impact of that, particularly on young people in the community?
FS: Well we have to acknowledge how media is powerful and how it does affect legislation the way that young Somali males are being carded based on the stereotypes that we see on TV.
ZA: Especially when you’re growing up and you’re criminalized and you’re seen as this certain type of person, you begin to inhabit these types of characteristics, you begin to believe that you are this type of person and then it’s like this self-fulfilling prophecy. And then they use that to support their narrative.
MG: Tell me how Project Toosoo is trying to counter all of these things?
ZA: Hibaq and Hawa brought together a group of Somali youth that are living the experience in Toronto to kind of take control of our own narratives… and that’s what we’re working towards.
We’ve had sessions where we’ve received media training… and also learning about the history of Somali activism.
MG: What are the moments that kind of stand out to you about the last few months?
ZA: We had this one session where we all had to bring in photos of our parents and reflect on them and I brought in a random photo that I grabbed of me and my two brothers and my brother was kind of giving me a headlock and we’re all just in our little one-room house. This was just when we came to the country, so it was kind of a reflection on where we’ve been and how it has improved for us but at the same time we have so much more to do and so much more to be.
I kind of thought about what our parents had been through… and how our problem are kind of rooted in what they’ve gone through.
FS: There was this woman who came into one our sessions, a mentor actually who share about her first experience coming to Canada with her family. And as she was sharing her story… where she had stayed, the YMCA where she first came to Canada, and it’s crazy to think that I was a toddler at the same time and stayed at the same place. And now to look at her as a professor here at Ryerson University — that was a chilling moment.
MG: How has it changed you being involved in this?
FS: I felt like it’s a very healing process because I was able to not only learn the tools but constantly being surrounded by a collective story of Somalis, I think there’s not a lot of spaces for that. And the fact that there are young Somalis coming together really challenging our notions, the way that people see each other and connecting the dots with our past is really a process of healing and a labour of love.
Questions and answers have been condensed.