My parents met as refugees in Italy. They didn’t believe in the American dream so they wanted to see what the Canadian dream had to offer.
I was raised in Toronto, a product of the Toronto community housing system. I started writing out of sheer boredom. Living in poverty, we didn’t have a computer or TV so I started writing. You know how people in class doodle in class when they’re bored? That was me with writing poetry. I had a thing for acting so spoken word came naturally to me in high school. I knew that, had my parents not been refugees and made the choice to leave, we would probably still be in Somalia today. In all aspects of my art, Somalia is there. Not necessarily in the language but in the storytelling, the culture. You can’t help but build a stronger sense of empathy when you become aware of the struggles your parents have gone through and that you don’t have access to the same resources as people with a fairer complexion.
Beyond the language barrier, the social isolation, the difficulty in finding a job, and the immigration discrimination, navigating the system is the most tedious and draining aspect for my family as Somali refugees. It’s a system that thinks you’re begging when all you’re trying to do is make a living. When I was growing up, I struggled with other black people telling me I wasn’t black, while the white people told me I was. I don’t speak Somali but I can understand it. I am Canadian but I don’t feel Canadian. There are so many ways to look at identity as a person of color. It humbles me.
My brother living with autism is something that has heavily affected my life. Whenever we talk about mental health in the Somali community, people often bring up possession. Growing up, the thing that I hated the most was the supposed connection between spirituality and autism. We’re not talking about someone being possessed, we’re talking about mental illness and neurodiversity. Within our community, they always say my brother is “sick” but he isn’t sick, that idea is a product of stigma. It’s based on a lack of information and the taboo of autism and mental illness in our culture. This was hard to process; it was easier to write it out. Eventually, I learned that it’s okay to share the things that hurt you.
With the dreams and aspirations I have, I’m nowhere close to where I want to be. My biggest success was the play I wrote about Autism. Essentially the play is about a nonverbal, autistic young man and his family’s navigation of his autism. He falls for his neighbor so you get to see autism through the context of a love story, which often doesn’t happen. It’s important to spread awareness about the intersection of race and ability. People don’t talk about autistic Somali kids or black youth with mental illness. I want to change that.
Every day for a full year, I carried around a big box from work to school, on the bus, and on the train. I carried it to raise awareness for autism. People saw me lugging it around and asked, “what’s up with that box?” I would say I’m carrying it for my brother and ask if they had ever heard of autism. Then we would have a conversation. For all poets, all writers: when the purpose of your art shifts into activism, that’s when you succeed. I never knew I was an advocate for autism awareness until I saw and addressed the systemic barriers for people trying to access the resources and services they need to live a high-quality life.
To mark the anniversary of carrying my box, I started raising money for people with autism- we’re up to almost $5000. The money raised goes directly to families in our community to help pay for basic needs and medical help. My brother lives in a group home outside of the city, so my goal for the future is to create the same kind of system but closer to Toronto. If I keep acting, maybe I’ll also be the first Somali woman to win an Oscar!
The road as an immigrant, refugee, or person of color, in general, is very tough. To the individuals who are refugees, I love you. I want to be able to tell you that the pain you are experiencing is not here to stay. It is fleeting. Sons and daughters of refugees, your stories matter too. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You have to be the best person you can possibly be for your parents, for our parents, for everyone back home. Canada, America, wherever you call home now is just as much your home as the place you once lived. Find your roots and don’t look back.