What comes to mind when you hear the word “Somalia”? How much do you know about the people, their culture, and their religion? The media reports of negative events in the country, some as recent and awful as a suicide bombing reported by the BBC on October 19, often prevent us from looking past the news at the much larger portrait of their whole culture.

UTM’s many ethnic clubs reflect its diversity, and the UTM Somali Student Association is one of the more recent among them. The SSA comprises a group of young Somalians mentoring and teaching one another about Somali history and heritage and sharing the history and importance of Somali culture with the rest of the campus.

Zakaria Abdulle, the SSA’s acting senior advisor, sat down with me last week.

The club was launched in 2009, in Abdulle’s first couple of years at UTM, but he admits he didn’t have the experience or know-how to really allow it to take off until 2012, when a new set of particularly supportive and enthusiastic Somali students arrived on campus, eager to bond with one another and learn about their culture.

One of the club’s goals is erasing the negative stereotypes of Somalia. “There are a lot of misconceptions,” says Abdulle. “We’re not so much a darling in the media, but we’re getting a lot of media coverage throughout the world.” He went on to decry the equivocation of terrorist organizations of Somali descent with the views of any of the Somalis on campus or the culture as a whole.

“Stigmatization that goes along with being a stereotype has dramatic effects not only for people my age but also for kids growing up reading this for the first time and hearing their friends say, ‘Oh, you’re Somali. You guys do this and that,’ ” says Abdulle.

The SSA is trying to change their culture’s image at UTM through mentoring and through other programs to reach out to the broader community.

“We have formal sit-downs and seminars for a lot of young Somali parents in the Peel region. For them to come down to the UTM campus, we plan on renting the lecture hall and telling them about things their child will need to become a successful university student,” says Abdulle.

“Their child needs their support more than ever when they enter university. And the skills the child needs and the steps they need to take forward are extremely important because their parents are really busy and their hope is their children.”

Many of the Somali students on campus are the first in their families to attend university, according to Abdulle. Immense pressure is placed on these students, and they have to overcome many barriers to their attending university, says Abdulle, and those who go out and meet with success should be in higher profile.

“There are many successful, vibrant young Somalis out there, male or female, doing really wonderful, great things,” he says. “What needs to be shed light on more are these success stories and not the negative portrayals of the [2013 film] Captain Phillips, of the alleged scandals in the City of Toronto, because that’s not who we are.”

Abdulle, who will graduate soon, stresses that he is only the spokesperson for the club’s “glut of young Somali females [and] males” who will be taking leadership roles in the future.

One of the biggest problems is the lack of Mississauga-based Somali youth organizations, according to Abdulle, who says the SSA is the city’s first.

Though Abdulle admits that the club is still in its fledgling stages, he hopes it will become a beacon, and that it will expand and fulfill his hopes and plans for it, appealing to the city and Peel region in general. “I want to expand this where students can go anywhere in Canada and feel like [they have a] sense of community,” says Abdulle.

“How are people going to think of you when you’re from Somalia? They’re going to think you’re lawless, you’re barbaric, you don’t have a sense of pride, and you don’t have a sense of identity,” he goes on. “I feel that through learning about my culture, I have a sense of culture and identity and I have a place to call home.

“I do have hope that we can help change the narrative. It may not take a year, it may not take two. It may take a decade, it may take 20 years. But we’re up to the challenge and we have some great leaders in our community.

“I always wanted to make this happen,” Abdulle concludes. “It’s very important [that] you know and love where you come from. Having a sense of identity, having a sense of culture, it speaks volumes [of] one’s own ability to feel confident and comfortable in their own skin.”

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