In mid-July, two weeks before my trip to Somalia, I was standing in a Toronto courtroom comforting my aunt as we listened to the detailed events of my cousin's murder for the very first time. In attempt of lightening the mood, a task so impossible considering the emotions we all felt that day, I discussed with her my excitement of seeing Hargeisa—both of our home city— for the first time. My attempt at a more lighthearted conversation to layer our collective depressed mood fell short when she looked me in the eyes and said: "I fled war for the safety of my children only to have them die here."
It was a Saturday morning in mid-March when, in the midst of trying to find myself out of bed, I noticed my phone vibrating repeatedly on my desk across my room. It was my father calling but I continued to click "Decline"; I remembered that a few weeks prior I had agreed to meet with him on an upcoming Saturday for brunch with a visiting aunt. I was nervous about whether that Saturday had arrived.
By the umpteenth call, my father decided to leave me a voicemail, and that's when I knew it was urgent. Perhaps I hadn't missed brunch and he was having another one of his paranoid episodes about the whereabouts of his daughter. I decided to finally pick up.
"Abo, are you sitting down?" His voice was calm but I could hear an undertone of alarm. Anxiety slowly started to swim through me.
"I'm laying down. Why?" I asked.
"Masud's dead, abo."
My heart stopped and I ran to my window for air. Despite how much further I stuck my head out into the -17 degree weather, I still couldn't breathe. I was looking at Ulster Street, where I had watched Masud standing just last week in the middle of the night, before we ended what I hadn't realized would be our last of many evenings together.
It's been seven months and I keep replaying the night of March 3 in my head. It was a Monday evening and I was sitting with Masud in my living room, eating the dinner that he had brought me in exchange of borrowing my Nikon D5000. Knowing he had absolutely no interest in photography, I kept asking him what exactly he needed my camera for and he assured me that that would be revealed when he would bring it back. I decided to be patient.
Together we watched an episode of Girls and conveniently the plot was about the intricacies and complexity of family dynamics. He tried to show me why I should have appreciated the episode; how raw it was about family ties, how confusing family dynamics can be and how much you can hate the people you love and know the most. It was fitting considering miniscule family tension taking place at the time.
I'm not the biggest fan of Girls but I will always appreciate the four hours of dialogue that that episode sparked between Masud and me for what I didn't realize would be the last moments of our twenty-four years together. It was too coincidental that our last shared moments were the most emotionally raw they had ever been and I keep wondering if he somehow knew that night was his last chance to tell me the things that he did, such as why he loved me.
Seven months later—or rather, a week ago—my little brother Guled sat in my room and mourned the loss of a young Somali friend whose life was taken mercilessly, mid-day near his own neighborhood in downtown Toronto. I watched as my community and network publicly mourned him on social media and I made efforts to comfort another friend who had just lost someone from his childhood. This all took place after a day of watching another network of friends mourn the loss of a young East African male—a community activist, Nahome, whose life was taken a week prior in the east end of Toronto.
I stayed up that night for hours thinking about how these young men, who may not have known of each other during their short time here on earth, all had many things in common: young, East African males whose lives were taken away to violence. I thought of my aunt and her efforts in the late 1980s to bring her children to what she hoped was a safer land, only to lose her second youngest son here at the mere age of 28. I thought about all of these young men's mothers, whose intentions had been the same in the late '80s and '90s, when many East African nations endured civil conflicts, delivering to Toronto some of its largest diasporas.
Masud and I grew up in Scarborough, one of the eastern boroughs of Toronto. I was born there and he had immigrated in 1989, during the peak of Somalia's civil war. Scarborough, like many other parts of Toronto, is a hub of various diasporas and immigrants. In 1996, his family moved to Markham and Lawrence, an intersection in east Scarborough, where they would be for the next 20 years, and where my father eventually decided to move to for convenience and to be closer to his younger sister and her kids. I lived directly below my cousins, both of our units situated right beside the staircase of our floors, which we would often use to run to each other's houses for food or favors or when bored. A decade later, one block away from the building we shared so many memories in, Masud's life would be taken away.
For months I have mourned the loss of someone who was like an older brother to me. For months part of that mourning has been the comfortless realization that my pain is neither exclusive to me nor unfamiliar among many members of my community. This current chapter for East Africans in Toronto is part of the migration, settlement and integration of all African and Caribbean diasporas in the West, where systemic barriers are structured to set up the black, Muslim immigrant family for failure.
Part of that process has challenged traditional family structures by pushing male-leads to one of two experiences: struggling to find meaningful employment in their new homeland, or fleeing abroad to locations where either their expertise is recognized or a more booming economy exists. In my community this has resulted in a second generation of Somali male youth who are suffering from the obstacles faced by their fathers and mothers. And then there is the additional layer of the black male experience in the West and the navigation of institutional racism—a foreign concept for newcomer Africans settling in the West. And then there is me and the women like me: the sisters, mothers, cousins and friends of these men who spend a lifetime raising, loving, and nurturing these black boys before we mourn their short-lived lives.
In a city such as Toronto, where the unemployment rate among youth is higher than it has ever been before, it is easier for these men to navigate to dangerous lifestyles that help solve financial scrambles, bringing violence into our communities and taking away our young men. In Toronto, for some, it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a job.
Mourning the loss of a loved one whose life was involuntarily taken at the hands of another is an agonizing and traumatic reality. The following days after the transcendence of Masud I was in physical and emotional shock. At first, his passing would only hit me at night, when I was alone and would fall asleep shaking and crying and struggling to breathe from an overwhelming sense of anxiety. I lose my brother—my safety blanket.
The following weeks after his passing, I contemplated how I could see him or hear him or touch him again. I waited for signs or visits from him in my dreams to let me know that he was OK or in a better place. I became desperate at the idea of spiritual miracles. Now, many months after his passing, I am beginning to acquaint myself with the fact that I do not know where he is or what he's feeling or what he's doing. But inshallah I will one day see him again.
For Abdulle Elmi, Osman Awad, Masud Khalif, Abshir Hassan, Nahome Berhane, and the countless others, may you all fly in peace, together.
Huda Hassan is a passionate, fragmentary girl, maybe? She is also a writer based in Toronto interested in cultural identity, girlhood and things that make people cry. You can find her on her blog Birds Nest.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]