This article contains descriptions of the abuse and sexual assault of minors.
It is a cold January night in 2018, in a gym at Sackville High School. Justin Trudeau is holding a town hall meeting, one of a series he will hold across Canada. Outside, protestors have gathered to resist the deportation of Abdoul Abdi, a young Somali man made a permanent ward of the province which then neglected to apply for his citizenship. Abdoul had been released from prison only days before, and has disappeared into solitary confinement in immigration custody. We will spend the next two weeks trying to track him down, waiting to hear his voice.
With Abdoul’s life in jeopardy, his sister Fatouma Abdi has come here to save his life. Before we go inside, she tells me, “I have to do everything I can to save my brother.”
As the protesters outside face racist taunts, inside the gym Fatouma stands, facing down the prime minister. She is seven months pregnant. As news outlets watch from across Canada, she asks a simple question: “Why aren’t you helping my brother?”
“My question to you is,” she continues, “if it was your son, would you do anything to stop this?”
Fatouma’s courage in that moment crystallized the growing advocacy in Canada around Abdoul’s deportation. The story would become the leading headline in Canada over the next weeks, covered in national news, debated in editorials, and pushed in months of actions. Her question would inspire other former refugee children in the child welfare system, and, a year later, would reverberate in another campaign to stop the deportation of Abdilahi Elmi, who faced similar circumstances. It would lead to a policy change in the provincial child welfare system requiring workers to take citizenship status into account. The events of this advocacy are covered in Desmond Cole’s bestselling book, The Skin We’re In.
In July 2018, with a successful ruling in federal court, then Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale announced that he was halting Abdoul’s deportation. He dropped the news in a tweet at 9pm, the day before a cabinet shuffle.
And with that, Fatouma and the movement she led had won.
• • •
What the public did not know then was what Fatouma herself had lived through, and what she continued to live even as she fought for her brother.
Now, two and a half years after the advocacy campaign for Abdoul began, she is coming forward to sue the province for the neglect and abuse she and her brother suffered in the child welfare system.
It is a story of horrific abuse, of systemic failures at all levels, and of a dehumanization and sheer indifference to Black life that is physically painful to read, to hear, to know. And it is also a story of Fatouma’s resilience, of a girl and then young woman disbelieved, silenced, and punished over and over again, and who never stopped advocating for herself and her brother.
Related article: Fatouma and Abdoul Abdi say they were repeatedly abused while children in custody of the province
The lawsuit by Abdoul and Fatouma goes beyond detailing the abuse they experienced in various homes — both family homes and province-run group homes — during their years in the system. The lawsuit also names the anti-Black racism and lack of cultural competency that contextualizes the decisions made to place them repeatedly to be harmed.
Not even a year after the final report was released in the Nova Scotia Coloured Home Restorative Inquiry, the filing by Abdoul and Fatouma raises fresh questions, new wounds that have not been addressed. If the province is to take any of the calls for justice, for restoration, in that report seriously, then surely Fatouma and her brother are owed justice and reparation. But how many more Fatoumas are out there?
Abdoul, the lawsuit tells us, also spent time in the Coloured Home, where workers witnessed him being sexually assaulted and did nothing. The details, encapsulated in only a few sentences, are haunting.
Imagine having to tell those details to someone to write flatly down in a document. For me to write about here. For media and lawyers to pore over. To determine how much should be calculated as a compensation. It is grotesque.
Writing on the page like this, I do not want to leave it sitting here: I want to write about Abdoul hugging me in freedom, lifting me off my feet and twirling me around. I want to write about Fatouma scolding me for not telling her Trudeau was in town long after the campaign for Abdoul ended, because she wanted to go fight for other children in her same circumstances.
I want to write about pushing her children on the swings, and Abdoul walking down the street giving his money to homeless people. I want you to see them as they are, not as the spectacle and object Black life is so painfully reduced to.
And I want them to have justice. I want Fatouma to finally be heard.
• • •
“I want to change this because this can’t happen to anybody else. What happened to me has happened , and I’m here now, but I don’t want it to happen again.”
Fatouma is sitting in the living room at Holly House, the home where the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia has their offices. Abdoul is on the phone, and they joke back and forth, slipping in their care and worry for each other between laughter. Knowing that the worst moments of their life are about to be made public, they are checking in, supporting each other, giving each other strength.
After they hang up, I ask Fatouma what she would like to see come out of the lawsuit.
“In all honesty, it’s going to bring light to how they run the system and what they did to other kids, and I hope it forces them to change. But for me, I don’t think it will ever bring me justice, because it doesn’t take away what Abdoul and I went through, nor does it take away what they put my children through,” she says. “I don’t think it will ever bring me justice.”
Fatouma and Abdoul were born in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia from Somali parents. In 1992, the same year Fatouma was born, Canada sent peacekeeping forces to Somalia. In 1993, soldiers from the Airborne regiment (now disbanded) tortured and killed Somali teenager Shidane Arone. I do not want us to believe that those revelations of brutal racism are absent from what Abdoul and Fatouma lived in Canada at the mercy of other systems of state power.
When Fatouma was turning 6, their mother got sick and passed. Her grandmother died the same year. By the time the family was sponsored to come to Canada from a refugee camp in Djibouti, there were only Fatouma, Abdoul, and two of their aunts left. Months after arriving in Cape Breton, the family relocated to Halifax. It was there the children were quickly taken into the child welfare system. Fatouma was 8 and Abdoul was 6.
“What I remember,” Fatouma tells me, “was social workers: two of them coming to the door with ten or more police officers, and saying to my aunt that they were there to take me and Abdoul.”
“Nobody sat us down and gave us an explanation. They didn’t give us a translator. I remember my aunts saying, you are not taking our kids. I remember the cops tackling my two aunts and beating them in front of me. Abdoul and I looked at our aunt, and I said I wasn’t going to go. The officers were trying to put us in the police car and I was fighting with them, and I got slapped because I didn’t want to get in the car. And then I remember sitting in the hospital just waiting for where they were going to send me.”
After the hospital, the children were sent to a temporary foster home, but after a week they were removed from that house and sent to the Dayspring Children’s Centre. It was there that the process of alienating them from their language and culture began.
“Every time I spoke my language, the only language I spoke, I would be in a time out in my room,” Fatouma remembers. “They assumed that we were using it to communicate about getting into trouble.”
Along with being punished for speaking their language, the workers in the home removed Fatouma’s hijab, and she was never given another one. Later in life, when Fatouma learned about residential schools, she recognized the tactics used to forcibly assimilate and kill Indigenous children.
“I found out that we were moving and I had no idea where we were going. They just kept telling us they had a good home that fit us and it was going to be better than the Centre. Me and Abdoul were really scared and really nervous. We kept saying: we’re together, so we’ll get through it.”
“The social workers dropped us off on the doorstep and said, ‘here they are, these are their names,’ and then they just left us. I never saw them again.”
In that home, the Gal foster home, Fatouma would repeatedly report abuse. Police and social workers returned her when she ran away, and repeated what she told them to the family which resulted in even harsher abuse. Her warnings to social workers that the foster family were from a rival tribe in Somalia and that the placement would put them at risk were ignored.
It would be more than a year before she was finally removed. Abdoul was left in that home for three more years.
• • •
I first met Fatouma on that January night. As we drove to the town hall, she asked one thing for herself. When the advocacy for Abdoul was over, she wondered, did I think that I could help her get a headstone for her son?
As the road unfolded before me, she told me of her twins, Martinez and Marcelino. Martinez had been taken from her, adopted by his paternal grandparents. Marcelino, born with disabilities requiring round-the-clock care, stayed with Fatouma. She took courses on parenting, woke up every hour of the night to care for him, treasuring the child she was allowed to keep.
When Abdoul was arrested, police raided her home searching for weapons. They didn’t find any, but in the aftermath, Fatouma found herself evicted from housing, and child welfare removed Marcelino from her care.
When Fatouma visited her child, she reported scratches on his face, and injuries that could not be accounted for. Nothing was done. Only weeks later, he was dead while in the custody of the province. Fatuma has never received any answers for how he died. Nobody has ever been held accountable.
The province did not even pay for his headstone.
Fatouma told me this story less than an hour before she would find herself on national TV confronting Trudeau. It was the headstone she kept returning to, the symbol of the utter indignity with which her family’s lives were treated. This one thing, even through death, that she could still be denied.
What was it like for this young woman to stand there with the memory of her son in the forefront of her mind, with her baby kicking inside her, to yet again confront the powers that continually stripped everyone she loved from her? Did she fear for her unborn child in that moment? Whatever she felt, she put it all aside in her love for her brother, in her fierce determination to save him, at least him.
What Fatouma did not tell me then, and what she would not reveal to me until this year, was that as she fought for Abdoul, she herself faced threats of deportation from CBSA. Fatouma was not accused of any crime. The threats were likely an intimidation tactic. Still, she received a letter informing her she risked removal, and, while still alone trying to find representation for her brother, she now had to find a lawyer to respond on her behalf. The whole time Fatouma spoke up for her brother, and later for other former refugee children in care like Abdilahi Elmi, she did not and does not have her own citizenship.
This is only one of the ways in which Fatouma was threatened.
• • •
For Fatouma, there was no rescue. Removed from the Gal home, she was bounced between placements. In the group homes, beginning in Grade 6, she would report the men who came around, harassing her, stalking her, looking to exploit her. One of them forced her to come with him to Montreal. Walking home from school with a friend, one of the men followed her, terrifying the girls. When they spoke to the police, the officer warned Fatouma about attention seeking behaviours. The state that had decided they were better parents for the children than their family failed in every way to keep her, such a young child, safe.
“When I got removed from the Gal home, I got put in a home in Cherry Brook but that didn’t last very long. I ended up going into every group home. Finally, they put me in Wood Street because they said I wasn’t listening and I didn’t know how to follow rules. They said I needed to be put there — in a locked home — until I could be obedient. I got really sick in Wood Street, so they extended the 30 days I was originally placed there. They took me to court and got me three more months.”
“I found out I was pregnant in Wood Street. I was 14 going on 15.”
Fatouma reported to workers that she had been raped but, once more, nobody believed her. Instead, they noted in her files that she was a prostitute. She was never given any sexual education, information about birth control, or ever taught about consent.
“I got really sick and they were saying it was the flu. The nurse insisted I did a pregnancy test and it came out positive. When they called my worker, they said right away: we’re going to look for a home for your kid.”
“I said, you’re not taking my baby from me. And they threatened me. They said, you can’t even listen to the rules of the staff, you can’t look after a child. They were saying I was irresponsible. I begged and begged, ‘what do I have to do to show you?’ They told me to take all these parenting courses, but they wouldn’t show me where to go and what to do. By the time I got out of Wood Street, I was so far along in my pregnancy. I didn’t have much time, but I took courses at the Dartmouth Family Centre. I got the certificates and showed them to my workers.”
“Then they said I can’t keep my baby because I lived in group homes. They said there were no homes who wanted to take a teenage mom and a baby, they just wanted the baby. I kept saying no, so they got a woman who wasn’t trained yet and they placed me in her house.”
“I believe I was sent to her house the day I got out the hospital, and I only met her the day I had my daughter Nemiah. I went from the hospital to this woman’s house and within the first week and a half she was already complaining about wanting more money because I was using too much power and water. She wouldn’t buy me food and I was breastfeeding. I told my worker how she was treating me, and they said she was complaining about me. So I said I couldn’t stay there but they said I had no options.”
“And when my daughter was 2 or 3 months old, social workers and police came to my door, just the same as I got taken away.”
“I was breastfeeding her, and they took her. At first I fought them. And one of the cops pulled his gun on me. There was a knife on the table, that’s why. I called my worker at the Family Centre. She came and she said to me, ‘If I was a good mother, then why am I placing my daughter in harm’s way?’ They decided to pull their guns on me, and that was me putting her at risk. They said if I just gave them my daughter, they’d look into the allegations and give her back to me in five days. But that was a lie. Because in five days all there was were court dates.”
“They put me through courses after courses. I’d complete them and they’d change the goalposts. First it was, they took her away because the woman housing me said I was outside with my daughter not dressed properly in a snow storm. That’s a lie, because my aunt bought her everything.”
“I hadn’t seen my aunt in years. When I was pregnant, I was going to Dartmouth High, and I bumped into her at the bus terminal. I didn’t recognize her but she was looking at me and said, ‘what’s your name?’ At first I thought she was judging me because I was a young pregnant Muslim girl, and then she asked me if I had a brother. She hugged me and cried and that’s how I knew it was my aunt. I told her they were trying to take the baby, and she took me shopping and bought me everything I needed.”
“First the workers said I had to focus on parenting. Then the new topic became Fatouma’s an angry person and until you learn to control your anger, you can’t get your kid. And I really struggled with that because I thought, how am I supposed to control my anger when the whole reason I’m angry is because of you?”
“After Namiah, I got pregnant right away with Naeem. While I was pregnant with him, I was still fighting for my daughter. Naaem was a preemie. He was two months early. They didn’t even give him one minute with me. He literally came out and he was taken out of my room. They gave my children to a white family. I fought to get visitation, and I wanted to breastfeed because they told me as a preemie the best thing was breast milk. They said to pump. But because I couldn’t hold him or see him, I stopped producing milk.”
“When I was fighting for Namiah and Naeem, I actually won the first time and I said I don’t care where I go as long as my kids are with me. I was pregnant then with my twins, and I was looking at homes for moms and kids. They wouldn’t help me. I went to the Adsum Centre. I was getting visitation with my children, but then my body just failed me. I had got my children back and a week after that I went into the hospital and they wouldn’t release me. I had Namiah and Naeem in the hospital with me.”
“I was put on bed rest, and the hospital called my workers and reported I had two kids with me and I had no one to take them. But the woman beside me had two kids with her and she had a cot in her room. They said to me, a hospital’s not for children. But I argued with them, and then they said I was angry and I needed to control my anger.”
“They took Namiah and Naeem from me right from the hospital and gave them back to the white foster parents.”
“The foster parents fell in love with them. They promised me I could have them back and they lied to me. I told the social worker it was all a set up to take my kids and he said I should be thankful because my kids are going with people they know who love them. I went right from my hospital bed into a trial for the other two kids.”
“It was the same judge who took me from my aunt. She said she knew me really well. I thought deep down inside, she knows what I went through, she’s going to be on my side. I was wrong.”
“I was living in a shelter and I said I knew you could have your kids there, and she said no, and that she was putting them in permanent care. I couldn’t believe I would never ever see my kids again. I was so devastated. I didn’t have anyone beside me. My lawyer said, but at least she said you were a good mother. And I thought, if you can see I’m a good mother why aren’t my kids with me? It was too much. I blacked out. I just remember being outside the courthouse with sheriffs beside me saying I needed to calm down and leave the courthouse or I would be put in jail.”
“Namiah was old enough that she knew who I was. She used to call me Mommy. They said I had one more visitation with them. They gave me half an hour to say goodbye.”
“I was told they would never keep the kids from me, but that’s exactly what they did. They are 12 and 11 now. The visitation, it ended so quickly. I’ll never forget, I know my daughter didn’t know what was going on. We were so close. They said the time was up. I was walking her to the car like I always did at visitation. Namiah wouldn’t get off from around my neck. She kept saying, ‘Don’t leave, Mommy,’ and they pulled her away from me and just drove away.”
“And that was the last time I saw them.”
“I always write the family who has them and say I want them to know me, I won’t even have them call me Mommy. But they never write me. And then they told me they sat my kids down and read them my file. My file doesn’t speak nicely about me. That hurts me so badly to think what they read about me.”
• • •
The violence Fatouma suffered from the state seems almost endless. There is a gendered element to this violence. Like many women who lived through the child welfare system, Fatouma continues to face surveillance of her own mothering from that same system that abused her. It is particularly enraging because the very things that make Fatouma a fighter — her refusal to be silenced — are what labelled her a problem in the system.
Over and over in Fatouma’s complaint we see her: young, afraid, removed from her family, forced to assimilate into a culture not her own, abused over and over and over in the most horrific ways — and yet she never stops speaking.
Over and over and over she is called a liar. She is returned to the people assaulting and raping her. She is accused of being promiscuous as a trafficked child. She is threatened about making false reports. She is sent to locked group homes to punish her where she was abused in yet more horrific ways: beaten, held in solitary, coerced into silence. And still, she speaks.
And it is this speaking, her remarkable, unbreakable spirit to never be crushed, that puts words in her files that make the same people who put her in these abusive situations label her an unfit mother, and visit their violence upon the next generation.
As it is gendered, it is also deeply racialized. I have a hard time believing a young white girl trafficked to Montreal would not be seen as a victim. Would not be offered counselling or help. This language of hyper-sexualization directed at Fatouma is part of a long legacy of excusing and perpetuating sexual violence against Black girls and women.
Idil Abdallihi, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University and co-author of the book BlackLife, identifies the violence done to Fatouma as part of a continuum of sexual violence and atrocity visited on Black women since enslavement. She says:
One of the first things Fatouma’s story is indicative of is the fact that young Black women are adultified from childhood, and also disbelieved and disregarded. This is why a system that apprehended her was able to put her in harm’s way where she experienced tremendous abuse. The “behavioural issues” attributed to Black children in care are always raced and classed, and so it’s no surprise that Fatouma as a young girl was continually denied and refused, and continued to be harmed by way of the state and individuals who have been licensed to provide care for her under the Child Welfare Act.
Around the world, experiences of young Black women and girls are always commodified. Black women were either the product of labour, or of forced sexual reproduction, or of rape. Within contemporary times, once we understood the ways we can further exploit Black women within the Americas we see Black women sold into sexual slavery and sold into labour while simultaneously taking care of white children. We’ve been taught to understand Black women in particular ways: as a Mammy, as a Hottentot Venus, as a sexualized Jezebel.
In the Canadian context we are seeing young Black girls labelled unruly and uncontainable, which is why we see a sharp increase of young Black girls not only in the child welfare system but in the criminal justice system.
We have to keep in mind what Fatouma was contending with. With being a refugee, with being Black, with being a Muslim girl. There are multiple oppressions she’s dealing with, including a language barrier. And throughout this process, one thing that is clear is — despite these atrocities visited on her as a young Black child and later as a Black woman and mother — she has an unbelievable capacity to cope, which should not be asked of anybody.
Notions of Black women’s promiscuity must be understood not only in the context of Black women but of Black girls. This idea is also connected with pathologies, diagnoses, and labels that have further impact on Black women’s files not only as children but when they become a mother. This is illustrative of the inter-generational involvement of the child welfare system in the lives of Black people.
What do we do with such a depth of violence inflicted upon Fatuma’s body and the bodies of her children? In this time, as people protest in masses against policing, we do not always remember that policing is not just officers in uniforms on the streets. The border guards and those who check the boxes for deportations, those who send the pre-removal letters, this is policing too.
In response to the killings of Black and Indigenous people during wellness checks, many have demanded social workers be called instead. But it is social workers who stripped Fatuma and Abdoul of their language and culture, while denying them the right of citizenship. It is social workers who placed Fatuma and Abdoul in abusive homes and then walked away without checking in on them. It is social workers who assumed a young Black girl was lying about sexual assault. And it is social workers who seized her children, and disregarded her again when she raised the alarm about her son. And it is health care workers who so often called these workers in. What justice is there when the people who label themselves as “carers” also leave dead bodies in their wake?
“We were not ‘in care’,” Abdoul reminds me. “We were in child welfare. There was never any care.”
“Is this shocking?” Idil asks. “To this day, Black children continue to be over-represented in the child welfare system. Fatouma and Abdoul’s story is not a story of the past. The statistics are not changing. So Fatoumas’s story should not just be a cautionary tale: it is part of an ongoing past, present, and future unless we create an intervention now.”
“Child welfare is carceral care. And we need to be careful about asking in our current demands to imagine something different that we’re not asking for increased carceral control, but thinking about the well-being of Black children and families.”
• • •
By the time Fatouma aged out of the child welfare system, she may have believed she would finally have control over her life. But once a file is started by the system, especially for Black children, it is never closed.
Mothering is everything to Fatouma: in all the ways her children were removed from her, nobody ever said she was abusing or hurting her children. It was not her parenting that was at issue; it was that a Black woman would reproduce at all.
Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies held in the School of Medicine at Dalhousie University studies histories of anti-Black racism in health and institutional contexts. She notes:
Black motherhood is often devalued. Black mothers are simultaneously thought to be too overprotective while at the same time framed as being careless and neglectful. These are the stereotypes that underscore the many justifications for why children are removed from their mother’s care. When this happens, the Black mother and her Black children enter a system that has resulted in further incarceration of both the parent and the child.
Black mothers, without extended family and who are struggling need supports, not surveillance.
Anti-Black racism also informs the child welfare system. This too is an outcome of the stereotypes developed during slavery and continued into the present moment. Black women are determined to be untrustworthy, and to not love and care for their children in the correct way. These stereotypes begin during pregnancy when expectant Black mothers are often disparaged and met with suspicion, and this continues after the child has been born. It is important to understand how anti-Black racism harms Black mothers and understandings of Black motherhood.
For Fatouma the system saw her motherhood not as an expression of love, but as an indication of something deviant.
“I had the twins when I lost Namiah and Naaem, so that was basically another fight for my newborns. They were born premature. Martinez got released from the hospital, and he just blossomed. I was scared of them taking him away, and so instead of him going to people I never knew, I talked to his paternal grandmother and I decided to put him with her. Marci ended up getting brain damage from the delivery. They asked me if I wanted to take him off life support. They said — and this is the words they used — that it was like having a vegetable. They said, he won’t be able to walk, he won’t be able to talk, or feed himself. I said, that’s my son and I’m going to take care of him.”
“I was fighting Children’s Aid, going to see him every day. I said I wanted to take him home. They said I had to train, so for a whole year I lived on the 7th floor with him, and trained at the IWK on how to care for him. I did all the training, and I proved everyone wrong. By that time I was old enough to be out of the system. I got to take Marcelino home. I think he was home almost a year before everything happened.”
“I had a nurse all night — in the day it was my responsibility. When the nurse came one night, I left to go grocery shopping and when I got back the building was surrounded by police. Abdoul had been arrested and they were raiding me. I didn’t know anything about weapons, but they kept interrogating me. They put me in the cells and the cop threatened me that he was going to call Children’s Aid and say I neglected my son. A half hour later they came back with two women with papers in their hands, and they said I medically neglected him. I said, ‘because I’m here? I have no choice but to be here.’ And they said fight it in court.”
“When I got home, my son’s room was destroyed, the oxygen tanks, everything was upside down. They put holes in everything I owned, and got me evicted. The owner said that what happened damaged the people who were living there.”
“My son Zayden, who is five now, he is my saving grace. When Marcelino died, I was not in a good place mentally. I went down to 80 pounds. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t doing anything. Then I found out I was pregnant, and at first I was scared. I was just so scared to go through everything again. But my doctor told me maybe this is what I need to turn my life around. Once I had him in the hospital, Children’s Aid came to see me but I was more of a grown-up at that time. I knew my rights. So I questioned them. And they said I was flagged in the system because Marcelino died in care. I challenged them that they had no grounds to take my baby. I had to agree I was willing for them to come any time they wanted to my house without calling, to inspect everything, to just be in everything I had. But I held on, and six months later they were out of my life. Now I have my daughter Amira as well. She just turned two.”
“The joy these kids bring me, I’m just happy to have them. They are my light on my darkest days. I’m just trying to protect them from everything.”
• • •
In January, Emma Halpern, the Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, met Fatouma at a panel hosted by the Schulich Law School. On the panel were women with lived experience fighting as advocates. Every woman on the panel said the same thing: that as hard and traumatic as it was to speak out and to have the most painful moments of your life made public, it was worth it for other women.
Fatouma says she was inspired by Carrie Low’s story to approach Emma about filing her own lawsuit.
“Fatouma is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met,” says Emma. “It’s that strength and courage that has brought her to a place where she is able to tell her story. Sadly, it’s a story that is very familiar to many of the young women we support. Many of those women are not in a position to tell.”
“So when she came to me and said she wanted to do this on behalf of others so that no-one would suffer the way she had, I saw that her resilience was going to be the catalyst for change for others. Unfortunately, it seems as though in our systems, we are only able to learn when the light is shone on the failures of our past. So it takes someone like Fatouma and Abdoul to stand up and say this isn’t okay in order for us to change and do better.”
While Emma knows nothing can ever make up for the brutality and losses Fatouma and Abdoul live with every day, she says, “I’m hopeful the law can be a tool for change to address racism and harm in our systems. We are committed to being by Fatouma’s side through this and into the future.”
Emma adds: “I’ve witnessed Fatouma as a mom and it’s an honour to witness her mothering. She’s a fantastic mother, and a fantastic activist and voice on the behalf of other young people who have been through the system and it’s an honour to be at her side in this work.”
• • •
In the final paragraph of Desmond Cole’s book The Skin We’re In, he describes the interview Abdoul gave with CBC’s The National when he was first released from immigration detention. Desmond writes, “The reporter asked him what he wanted to say to Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government. Abdoul replied, ‘Help me, and help kids never be in the situation I’m in right now. Because I guarantee you if I just get swept under the rug, that there will be another child in the same position I am.”
On the phone with Abdoul now, he tells me the same thing. He is doing this for others. “If this goes through now,” he says, “no other kid will ever have to grow up like we did. Our kids will never have to go through that.”
I am continuously humbled by Abdoul and Fatouma’s courage, by how often they have opened themselves to the public gaze and criticism for other children they do not even know. I marvel at them, betrayed so often and still believing in hope and goodness.
If we are left with any image of them, let us be left with that.
• • •
In the last days of August, I pay a visit to the “coloured section” of the Camp Hill cemetery. In the margins, to the outskirts where Black people were laid to rest, I come with water and the cuttings of a plant to give libation to the dead.
Here, where for generations Black people even in death were segregated in one last act of violence, I think about the many of us buried without grave markers, those thrown into the ocean, those jumping off cliffs, without any sign left of their being. Among the spirits of these ancestors, I pray for Fatouma’s son, another Black child laid down without a headstone. I pray for them to watch over him. It is never-ending, what they do to us, it never stops, and it keeps coming back.
But it is Fatouma’s courage that sings with the hope of no more, not another child.
Buffeted through three generations of trauma, her voice refuses to let what has happened pass unknown. For the names denied on headstones, she has carved her words onto paper instead, made her testimony a symbol for the past that must not be forgotten, and for the future that will not be secured without reparation.
As the water soaks into the ground, I remind myself that we are more than our suffering, and that our existence is not bounded by the pain visited upon us.
Fatouma is still here, unbowed, and still speaking. And this, too, is justice.
I want to recognize and honour the contributions of Kyiaisha Benton, the Communities of Care Project Coordinator at Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia for her neverending care; the staff at Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia; Ben Perryman for his legal advocacy for Abdoul; Nimrod Matthias for photographs of Fatouma; Jalani Morgan for photographs of Abdoul; and Desmond Cole and Idil Abdillahi for the support in bringing this story to life.
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And it is those same social workers who write the reports, and their supervisors the senior bureaucrats who write the briefing notes, slanted to justify all their decisions and dehumanize the ‘clients’ … and it is easy for them, if the politicians who read them are well-meaning but naive, to gain those elected officials’ support for their actions. It’s for the best, after all. The only way …
I never saw the briefing notes on Fatouma and her brother, but I bet I could quote them word for word.
I do not excuse politicians who fail to investigate further, who don’t question the received wisdom, who don’t push for answers and ask the hard questions on behalf of those who have no power. But I do understand how such politicians can be captured by their bureaucrats, especially in a department like Community Services, where everything is cloaked with “Our job is hard and heartwrenching, but we’re just trying to do the best thing for everyone involved “.
It happens in the Department of Justice, too. And Health. And every department where self-righteous, self-confident bureaucrats abound, who have power over others’ lives and bodies – particularly Black, Indigenous, and coloured ones.
Thank you so much for this. I am filled with heartbreak and rage for Fatouma and her children. The foster care system is definitely part of systemic racism and imprisonment. So is industrialized birth and the impoverishment of women. It is in the lives of women and children that the full cruelty of our society comes to its sadistic fruition. We must all fight this and for each other.