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Toronto Somali community centre moves closer to reality


By Ben SpurrCity Hall Bureau
Tuesday April 30, 2024

In April, council took made an important move toward addressing the community’s sense of exclusion when they voted to work with advocates to create a Somali Centre for Culture and Recreation.


Obo Hassan is the manager of Istar restaurant and a strong voice advocating for a Somali community centre. Rexdale’s Somali community is excited about plans to build a much needed Somali community centre.

After a decades-long struggle, Toronto’s Somali residents could soon officially get a place in the city to call their own.

Less than one per cent of the population traces its origins to the East African country, but the community has made outsized contributions to everything from local language — Raptors fans labelled their 2019 playoff opponents the Milwaukee “Bucktees,” after a Somali insult — to music — Mogadishu-born Toronto rapper K’naan won a Grammy this year — to politics — Minister of International Development and York South-Weston MP Ahmed Hussen arrived from Somalia as a refugee.

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But despite all they’ve brought to the city, members of the predominantly Black and Muslim diaspora say they have faced discrimination, and aren’t afforded the same social and economic advantages enjoyed by other Torontonians.

This month, council took an important step toward addressing that exclusion when they voted 22 to 1 to negotiate an agreement with local advocates to advance work on a Somali Centre for Culture and Recreation (SSCR). The new facility would deliver culturally appropriate social services, and give residents of Somali descent a place to celebrate their heritage.

“I have never been more proud to be Torontonian than in that moment,” Zakaria Abdulle, chair of the SCCR, said of the vote. Council “stood up for a community that has been standing up for itself for a very long time.”

Not everyone is on board with the plan, however, at least not yet. Coun. Stephen Holyday cast the lone vote against the proposal on April 18, citing a lack of consultation.

The city’s shortlist of potential locations for the facility has not been made public, but according to sources, it includes a site in his Etobicoke Centre ward.

Holyday wouldn’t confirm that to the Star, but said in an interview that his vote had nothing to do with the group behind the plan, who he described as passionate advocates “working to do something positive.” However, he predicted the community centre could prove “controversial” if nearby residents don’t feel “there is a selection process that involves the community’s input.”

Coun. Amber Morley (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) called Holyday’s position “disappointing.” She warned that holding up the proposal could “feed into that feeling of exclusion that many members in the Black community continue to navigate.”

There are about 20,000 people of Somali ancestry in Toronto, many of whom settled in Rexdale and elsewhere in the West End as the country slipped into civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.

Abdulle said the idea for a Somali centre was already in the air by then, having been proposed by members of the local community in the 1970s. Finally making it a reality would allow Somali-Canadians to take part in a “Canadian rite of passage” that has seen previous waves of newcomers from Europe, South Asia, and elsewhere carve out permanent footholds for themselves in Toronto, he said.

It would also help address an imbalance in Toronto’s social infrastructure; the SCCR says that just three per cent of recreation and community centres are Black-led and Black-serving.

“Communities need spaces to feel like they are part of Toronto’s growth,” Abdulle said.

In consultations, residents said the centre should include a multi-purpose recreation space, indoor basketball court, theatre, child care spots, a library and exhibition space to showcase Somali culture.

Hopes for what the centre could do for the community are high.

Obo Hassan, who helps run the popular Istar restaurant at Westown Plaza, said that while many Somali immigrants and their children have become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, some young men still have limited opportunities and have become involved in crime. Others struggle with poor physical and mental health.

Recreation programs could help stop young people from falling in with a bad crowd, while social workers working out of the centre could provide mental health support, Hassan said. “We need to have a place where the kids can enjoy going.”

That hope was echoed by Sahra Siyaad, who sells dresses and other goods at a market near Martin Grove Rd. and Rexdale Blvd. For almost a decade she has been organizing with other Somali mothers to prevent youth violence in the community. Their work has inspired Mayor Olivia Chow, who frequently quotes a proverb referenced by the group that asserts when individuals come together they have the power to “mend a crack in the sky.”

“It helps the children,” Siyaad said about the potential for basketball and other recreation programs that could be run out of the centre.

Under the council-approved plan, the SCCR is hoping the city will provide land for the facility at a nominal cost, while the group would secure money to build and operate it through fundraising and from the provincial and federal governments. Programming would be geared to the Somali community but the centre would be open to all residents.

Chow told council this month that she is “wholeheartedly” backing the SCCR’s funding request, and has advised the other levels of government “this is a very important community for you to invest in.”

City staff are expected to report back to council in June prior to executing a formal agreement with SCCR, to provide an update on the proposal. Chow has promised robust consultation as the project moves forward.



 





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