Why so many Somali-Canadians who go west end up dead

They are called the ciyaal baraf, or the children of the snow. The kids of a generation who fled blood-stained Somalia two decades ago.

Their parents sought refuge across the world in a mass exodus from civil war. Many settled in Canada, mostly in Toronto, where they raised their children, often in poverty. And, as the children came of age and branched out across the country, a new kind of grief emerged.

Since 2005, dozens of young men from Canada’s Somali community have been killed, most of them casualties along a cocaine-dusted corridor between the housing projects of Toronto and the oil patch in Alberta. Most cases remain unsolved.

The latest slaying was among the most brazen. Ahmed Hassan, a 24-year-old who’d been charged with dealing drugs in Alberta, was gunned down in Toronto’s Eaton Centre. His public death has nudged this grief into the spotlight and renewed calls from Somali community leaders for governments to help stop the bloodshed.

Ultimately, the shooting has forced the country to confront the vexing question of why so many of these young men who go west end up dead.

Western dream a nightmare

The Somali-Canadian community may be rooted in Toronto, but the source of its grief is in Alberta, where at least 23 young men have died in the past seven years.

There are about 3,000 Somalis who live in or near the oil-sands city of Fort McMurray. Their community is clustered in a series of low-rise apartments tucked between a grocery store, a mall and a graveyard. They come here dreaming of well-paying jobs, hoping to send money back home and end two decades of poverty. But many lack recognized skills and end up chronically underemployed, driving cabs or working as hotel housekeepers; or they’re unemployed, as is the case with more than 300 Somalis in Fort McMurray today.

“We’re called the lost generation,” explained Warsame Adam, a 29-year-old facility manager at the Fort McMurray mosque. “We’re hit from every direction, Somalis. It’s like we don’t belong anywhere.”

Mr. Adam found meaningful work out west. Others, however, heeded a different, persistent call – that of the drug trade.

“I don’t think anybody goes there saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to go over there and become a drug dealer,’ ” said Ali Abdullahi, who runs youth programs for Somalis in Toronto and knew at least one of the men killed in Alberta. “It’s a lot of young men who go over there, look for work, and some of them may not have all the qualifications to find a job.”

But they still need to make money, said Hukun Hurur, a Somali leader in Fort McMurray. “And then they turn to other things.”

Cocaine use thrives in Alberta’s oil patch, driven by those who did find well-paying jobs. In 2010, Fort McMurray RCMP laid five cocaine-trafficking charges for every marijuana charge.

It’s a brisk trade. High-level dealers can quickly gross $5,000 a day selling crack and cocaine, making $12-per-hour labour jobs seem laughable.

“We don’t get a job. So the only option is to get money, to sell drugs,” said one young Somali-Canadian in Fort McMurray, who calls himself M.J.

“There’s something wrong with this city,” he said.

Civil war

Most of these children of the snow can trace their roots to strife-torn Somalia. In 1991, armed opposition groups overthrew the ruling military government, thrusting the country into a brutal and protracted civil war.

As the conflict worsened, migrants poured into Toronto, along with other cities in the United States and Britain. Many arrived with limited English skills and few resources. In places like Toronto, where there was no existing Somali community to join, families were left to fend for themselves.

Rima Berns-McGown, a University of Toronto professor who has studied the Somali diaspora in Canada and Britain, said many parents who brought their children abroad were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – yet another challenge for young families adapting to life on a new continent.

The Globe and Mail Inc.