Prologue: December 4 & 5
Desmond Cole says to me, “these people underestimate us.”
We are organizing to help Abdoul Abdi, who was brought to Canada from Somalia as a young boy, was taken into the care of the province and bounced between 31 different home placements, including three years of abuse. Through it all, he was never provided with Canadian citizenship. As a young adult, he became involved in the criminal justice system and now, because he lacks citizenship, Adbi faces deportation back to Somalia.
There’s so much groundwork that goes into organizing for cases like this. You have to know what you’re doing and anticipate everything, read everything, learn everything, strategize everything.
Earlier in the month, I met with Abdoul’s lawyer Benjamin Perryman at the Halifax Refugee Clinic. At the meeting, Julie Chamagne, the executive director of the clinic, mentioned the recent TEDx talk by Ahmed Hussen, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship. He talked about how he was a refugee to Canada, and how he experienced systemic racism.
So of course, because this is how things are going to work with this case, it turns out the Minister would be speaking at the National Black Summit two days later.
I called Desmond Cole and we agreed we have to question the minister — Does he think it’s right that Canada deports children in care? Ben was busy with submissions for the case, but he wrote us up a brief with carefully organized demands. The Minister was listed as speaking on Tuesday morning at the Summit, but then he unexpectedly was at the gala opening on Monday night.
I’m not sure if Hussen was still coming on Tuesday so I ask Rinaldo Walcott, who was keynoting the night, that if he got the chance, to get Hussen one of the briefs and tell him about the case. Rinaldo gets it done.
It turns out on Tuesday morning the Minister is speaking, but because we didn’t think he’d be there twice, Desmond hasn’t arrived yet. I’m frantically texting Desmond, who is running to the subway. The Minister is doing a Q and A. “I need you,” I tell Desmond. “You’ll push more than I will. Please hurry.” Desmond makes it into the room 30 seconds before I get the mic.
We talk about the case, and Desmond asks the minister to comment on the principle — Does he think it’s just that we deport children who should have their citizenship? “You’re from Somalia,” Desmond reminds the minister. “If it’s too dangerous to you, why would you sign to send Abdoul back there?” Desmond pushes the minister for an answer, which he evades.
The rest of the day, all kinds of people are angry with us for questioning the minister, and are coming up to us telling us we were rude, that we took up too much time, that it’s not appropriate to “attack” the minister, that we need to give him a chance, that we should support him because he’s Black. It’s Desmond who gets the brunt of the criticism. I love Desmond for this, that he does that for me, that he pushed so hard because I wasn’t sure if I could have done it alone.
Later, Desmond and I talk about how uncomfortable that experience was: how we were made to feel disruptive, and crazy, and wrong.
I think people imagine that someone like Desmond loves the attention, that he lives for this kind of spotlight, but it’s not true. It was painful, and awful, but I promised Abdoul we would fight our hardest for him, that we are not going to just let him be deported without speaking out, so we have to follow through.
In all the answers Trudeau will give us Tuesday night in January, he will keep pointing out his Black friend, using Ahmed Hussen’s experience as a refugee to deflect the injustice that happens systemically to Black people in Canada, as though having a Black man sign the deportation papers is progress.
Friday, January 5
I ask them to talk to me about what happens to families when there’s a death in custody. It’s been 10 years since Ashley, and nothing changes. I’m recovering from the flu, though, and then by Sunday there’s no time to write the story.
Coralee Smith, Ashley’s mother, tells me how when she found out about Ashley, she was outside gardening. Ashley was coming home in a few days, and she wanted the yard to look beautiful for her. And then a car pulled up. Dawna Ward, Ashley’s sister, tells me that after that, it took seven years of fighting for justice, all the way up to the Prime Minister.
These interviews haunt me all week. When you ask someone for their story, when you ask them to speak to you about the most raw things in their lives, you have a responsibility to that story, and to those lives. You have to do your best to honour the people who told you their pain for as long as you carry that story with you. I don’t think you can ask people for their pain and then pick it up or put it down as you please.
This is how I feel about Abdoul’s story as well, that if I’m going to speak about him I have to do everything I can to do right by him in return.
Here’s something you don’t know: the way I first find out about Abdoul’s case is from Ashley Smith’s nephew Jordan Ward. He’s in Dorchester with Abdoul and they’re close. He’s the one who reaches out for help for Abdoul, who connects Abdoul on calls.
There’s a circularity to things, because the way I first met Ashley’s family is around the protest against the shackling and deportation of Fliss Cramman. Like Abdoul, Fliss was in care. And like him, nobody ever got her citizenship for her either.
When I was organizing to help Fliss, Coralee called me up, introduced herself, and told me she couldn’t bear to see that happening to another woman. Ashley had been strapped down, duct taped to airplane seats, restrained in chairs and to beds. Coralee told me she needed to come to the protest.
What happened, though, is that at noon on the day of the protest, the justice minister intervened and ordered Fliss unshackled. We decided we’d still go ahead with the protest because Fliss was still being deported, but since she was no longer in chains, people thought the issue had been resolved.
I was standing outside the hospital with Coralee and Dawna, worrying about what would happen if nobody else came to the protest. And Coralee said to me something I’ll always remember. She said, “But El, there’s three people here. And that’s three more people than most women in prison have.”
Saturday, January 6
On the weekend, Todd McCallum starts sending me Twitter links. Abdoul has been arrested from the prison and detained. Ben lets us know that a hearing has been scheduled for Monday when Abdoul only reached the jail on Friday — a speed that suggests the case is being pushed forward. Abdoul is in solitary confinement.
The case is at a crisis point, and Black Twitter is putting the pressure on. Toronto is showing up for Abdoul.
Reading through all the Twitter threads, there’s a depressing cruelty by white people on display. Because Black people are advocating and care about something, of course white people have to leave comments like “Good, 1 of you gone, hope they get rid of 100, 000 more of you.”
I don’t hang around white people’s Twitters commenting, but there doesn’t seem to be a single account by a Black person that white people won’t deliberately pay attention to just to say cruel and racist things. It’s not like they care about Black issues, so why do they bother reading? It’s the meanness of searching us out just to leave a racist comment, of actually putting in that kind of dedicated energy to hating Black people that gets me.
Monday, January 8
Ben is fantastic. He’s not only fighting legal battles on all sides, but he’s getting constant calls from the media, and now that there’s national activism about the case he’s also got so many moving parts. There are so many people involved, and he handles everyone with care and kindness.
When Toronto starts organizing on the case, Idil, a Somali social worker in Toronto, calls Ben. She tells me this after, that of course she looked him up on line, but she wanted to hear from him what kind of person he is. When I next see Ben I tell him, “you know you were being vetted by the community, right?” He had no idea. It’s his compassion and genuineness that shines through.
Tuesday, January 9
So of course, it turns out that Justin Trudeau is going to be in Nova Scotia on Tuesday for a Town Hall. We were planning to do a day of action for Abdoul across different cities, but with Trudeau coming to Halifax, there’s no way we can’t be out there for Abdoul.
On the weekend, Sandy Hudson was challenging the mainstream media — how is it that Black Canada is on fire with this case, but only Black journalists like Vicky Mochama and Desmond Cole are taking interest? Where is the national news? Now that Trudeau’s coming and we’ve called a protest, that changes.
Emma Halpern texts me as we sit waiting for Trudeau to arrive. Debra Spencer’s application for Canadian citizenship has been successful. She won’t be deported. It took years to halt that deportation. Emma says she’s feeling mixed emotions, such joy for Debra, but fear and worry for Abdoul. She hopes Debra’s case can help with Abdoul, and she encourages us, saying that the pressure around Abdoul’s case helped Debra. The first time I talked to Abdoul, he asked me why I try to help people. “Do you ever think you can win?” he said, and I told him “yes, we can win, at least small victories.”
Abdoul’s sister Fatuma Alyaan comes to the Town Hall. The plan originally is just to be outside — the point is to get the media interested in the case, with the hope that journalists will start asking Trudeau questions about the deportation.
That afternoon, Sheldon MacLeod asks Trudeau about Abdoul in his interview, and Trudeau claims the system is “fair,” “careful,” and “rules based.” Apparently those rules don’t include having any policy about seeking citizenship for children in care.
When we get to the Town Hall, Fatuma tells me she needs to go inside. She wants Trudeau to look her in the face and tell her why he’s deporting her brother. Because we’re standing in the line to get in, we’re not even helping with the protest. For the next two hours, out in the cold, Masuma Khan relentlessly leads the protest. We can hear her chanting all the time we’re waiting. “Free Free Free! Abdoul Abdi!” Later I find out that they were subjected to all kinds of racist attacks by people in the line. Many of the people protesting are Muslim women in hijabs, and people yell at them to go back to the Middle East. People heckle them, curse at them, call them terrorists, yell racist things at them, but they keep going.
Masuma and Amina went to school with Abdoul, and Masuma remembers playing soccer with him. There’s another young woman who remembers Abdoul and Fatuma when they first came to Canada, how thin they were, with such big eyes. She was eight years old then, and she remembers thinking, they’ll be safe now. They’ll have so much opportunity now. Everything is going to be better.
Inside, Fatuma is shaking, but she’s determined. “I need to save my brother,” she says, “and if I can do anything to help him, I’m doing it.” When she stands up and tells Trudeau about how she and her brother were taken into care, neglected and abused, how the province didn’t get citizenship for them, and how now Abdoul is being deported, someone in the audience says “good!” I think about that later — there are people in the room whose countries were bombed by Canadian forces, whose family members were literally killed and who had to flee from war, but when veterans talk about having PTSD, they would never say “good.” What a cruel and inhumane thing it would be to gloat at someone else’s suffering. But it’s normal to do it to us.
Fatuma is amazing. She’s supposed to be on bed rest and is under orders not to be on her feet, but she stands her ground and asks Trudeau for answers. In the car later, it kind of hits me and I turn to her. “You challenged the Prime Minister!” She makes all of us cry with her courage. Afterwards, Idil points out, that’s the condition of Black life in Canada. We don’t have the choice to be tired, or sick, or scared, or unwilling. We have to get up and keep fighting.
Think of all the worst things that happened to you. Imagine that the most traumatic, painful, horrific experiences of your life are now common knowledge. Imagine everyone commenting on those experiences, deciding whether you deserve empathy, demanding more details, condemning you for them, judging you. Imagine your abuse being discussed nationally. Imagine revisiting these things over and over, being asked questions about them, reliving them in front of the whole country. Fatuma does this willingly, puts all of that before the whole country, out of love for her brother. I can’t even begin to imagine how this feels for her, and she never even blinks, she will do anything to save him.
Wednesday, January 10
On Wednesday, Jordan Ward walks through his mother’s door. I relay this to the people organizing in Toronto in one of our calls, tell them that the young man who got this going is home. When I tell them the connection to Ashley, Idil is stunned. Abdoul’s aunt talks about Ashley every day. She keeps saying, they’ll kill Abdoul like they did to Ashley. I think about what Coralee said in our interview. “If you get someone in prison, be careful.” They both know what happens in Canada to people who are labelled criminal.
“I saw civil war in Somalia,” Asha tells me, “and this is worse. Seventeen years of injustice in Canada, I never imagined this.” She believed they were coming here for freedom, where it was good and kind and fair.
I show Fatuma one of the articles about Abdoul, and she asks me, where did they get that picture? It’s Abdoul as a child. “Send it to me,” says Fatuma, “I don’t have any pictures of him.” I show her another article, with a photo of them as kids, sitting together on the couch. She asks for that one too. Imagine news stories on your brother’s deportation having more access to your childhood than you do.
Premier McNeil says the province is going to review the cases of non-citizen children in care. Robert Wright sends me a press release from 2015, where social workers demanded action from the province around the conditions of African Nova Scotian children in care, and the over-representation of Black children in the child welfare system.
When I talked to Coralee Smith about Ashley’s case, she told me about how nobody would take any accountability. Dawna tells me the guards showed up in court laughing and slapping each other on the back in front of the family. Everyone pointed fingers at each other, Coralee says, so nobody was responsible. It’s the same thing with Abdoul. The province says they can’t intervene with a federal matter. Trudeau throws responsibility back on the province, and admits that Abdoul was failed by the child welfare system. Still, the only person who is paying any consequences for that failure is Abdoul.
Friday, January 12
On Friday, even as the province continues to shrug their shoulders about what happened to Abdoul, the Restorative Inquiry into the abuses at the Coloured Home releases a report. Nothing could make clearer that these abuses of Black children are ongoing, and that even as the province pledges to address racism in the child welfare system and to be accountable, they continue to let Abdoul and others fall through the cracks. Nothing has changed.
When Ben got Abdoul out of solitary confinement and got him transferred to Toronto, close to his aunt, Sandy Hudson posted:
There’s this part in Frederick Douglass’ autobiography where he talks about teaching his fellow slaves to read. And he says that the love he felt for them surpasses anything he has ever felt:
The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed. When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race…
…They were noble souls; they not only possessed loving hearts, but brave ones. We were linked and interlinked with each other. I loved them with a love stronger than any thing I have experienced since. It is sometimes said that we slaves do not love and confide in each other. In answer to this assertion, I can say, I never loved any or confided in any people more than my fellow slaves, and especially those with whom I lived at Mr. Freeland’s. I believe we would have died for each other. We never undertook to do any thing, of any importance, without a mutual consultation. We never moved separately. We were one; and as much so by our tempers and dispositions, as by the mutual hardships to which we were necessarily subjected by our condition as slaves.
When we organize together through oppression, you feel that deep love of each other. I love Fatuma standing in front of Trudeau. I love Desmond coming to stand beside me when I need him. I love Ben working quietly on the case for a year, and then, with the sudden glare of attention and publicity, treating everyone with exquisite respect. I love the people who all day every day are refusing to let the pressure die down.
And we love Abdoul, who most of the people who are fighting for him have never spoken to, but who they care for with the fierce love Black people feel for our own people, for our own people who this world does not love, who this country wants to throw away like garbage, who have been disregarded and neglected and constantly abused, and who we love because they are us, because what happens to each one of us happens to all of us and it hurts us on a personal level.
We will win isn’t just about hope. When we are not even seen as human beings, when our lives matter so little to everyone from people commenting on Twitter to the Prime Minister of Canada himself, despite that we know we are not our oppression. We are not what we are imagined to be.
We will win means how beyond the protests and the media and the agitation there are people bringing groceries. It’s people finding jobs, and offering housing, and building supports because if we don’t save each other, nobody else will. It’s iZrEAL sitting outside the town hall for five hours waiting to drive us back, and using the time to plan with people in Hamilton, because Trudeau should be questioned everywhere he goes.
We are not just making noise — every day and every night we’re building structures together, coming up with solutions, finding the next person to call in. It’s Idil spending three hours on the phone on hold with the jail in New Brunswick until they finally bring Abdoul to the phone and allow him to call his family. As Desmond said, they underestimate us.
Abdoul isn’t defined by a case or a cause. He’s a real person. Jordan tells me how close they grew, how they shared their hopes for the future like any young friends, how Abdoul spoke about making changes to his life, about never being in this position again.
Abdoul is hidden away from us. He was in solitary confinement, and he couldn’t talk to us. In his absence we have to speak for him. Ben quotes Abdoul in a press release, at his hearing, asking the people adjudicating his case to look beyond his past and see him as a human being. His life is before us in case files, in news articles, we are all talking about him but he is not here, he cannot tell his own story. He is at the centre of everything and nowhere, made absent by the prison system, by the immigration system, by the narrative of him as a threat who needs to be removed, disappeared like so many Black lives whose names become known only through their suffering.
Ben says that when he told Abdoul about Fatuma confronting Trudeau, Abdoul — who is stressed and worried and in terrible conditions — laughed for the first time.
And there’s joy too. Working so intently with each other, we start to anticipate each other’s reactions. “I was thinking the exact same thing,” we say together in late night calls, planning out the next steps.
Late last night, I get a text. “I wanted to treat myself tonight but why am I eating Popeyes chicken?” I text back, “deadass, I am eating watermelon right now.” And then we break up laughing.
None of us have slept much all week, and everyone is exhausted but we keep pushing because we believe we will win. Activism work isn’t really about the noise, it’s about all the relationship building, the hard work of caring for each other and sustaining each other and creating new structures to support us.
I know that Tim will give me the week off if I need it — it’s not like he’d ever force me to write, but one of the things that’s been so apparent this week is how much we need Black media, and how it’s those writers coming through that are making our voice heard. I tell Idil, I don’t even think there’s anything I have left that I could say about this, I’ve written so many posts, and messages, and emails, and talked about it so much, and I don’t know what I could add now. But there’s something about just being present in writing that’s important right now. Idil suggests to me, why don’t you write about that, what it’s like doing this work and then having to also write about it, I’d be interested to read about that. She tells me this while she’s trying to mark while also pulling everything together behind the scenes: Idil never stops.
All of us have jobs, and school, and families. This isn’t even the only thing we’re advocating on this week, because there’s always more suffering, more rights being denied, more people in need.
So many people have taken constant abuse in their organizing — members of BLM TO told me they couldn’t take public transport for months after they halted the Pride parade, because they got so many threats and so much public harassment. Yet here they are stepping up again, offering whatever they have, putting themselves out there again.
I don’t know how to describe how it feels in those moments when you see a huge collective of people rise up and move together — in Nova Scotia we’re so often at the margins of Canada, living out the struggle in relative obscurity. There’s so much collective labour that has gone on all week, hours and hours that people have put in, just on this one case of injustice. And there are thousands more Abdouls, and thousands and thousands more Black people in this country right now suffering and struggling, silent and alone. And if we can’t go one by one and fight it all, we have to keep fighting to change the deep anti-Blackness that shapes the lives of all Black people living in Canada.
We have to do it, and we believe that, one day, we will win.