How Ahmed Hussen rose to become Canada’s border man
As a young boy, Canada’s new immigration minister fled war-torn Somalia to forge a new life in Toronto. Now, with U.S. anti-Muslim rhetoric on the rise and Canada facing an influx of desperate refugees, Ahmed Hussen must balance his hard-won empathy for outsiders with a mandate to ensure the integrity of our borders. Erin Anderssen and Michelle Zilio report
On a Saturday afternoon in late February, a lively crowd is squeezed along the narrow aisles of the Al Baraka Variety Store, waiting to shake the hand of Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s new immigration minister. Everyone wants a selfie, and Mr. Hussen, his close-shaven head a good foot above the crowd, happily complies, grinning broadly and greeting people in Somali. His staffers keep their eye on the clock – the minister has a full day ahead and another block yet to travel down Toronto’s Weston Road. Outside, as they see him on the sidewalk, families driving by beep their horns and shout greetings. At the corner of Lawrence Avenue, Nimo Hussein, a 20-year-old Somali woman in a plaid hijab, walking with her younger siblings, circles back to meet him. She tells him they’re on their way to the library, and he bends down to chat with her brother and two sisters. “He was an immigrant, too,” Ms. Hussein marvels. “He started there and he rose all the way up.”
In Canada, as elsewhere, refugee communities take time to get their footing. Toronto’s Somali community – the largest diaspora of Somali refugees in the Western world – has struggled more than most since their first wave landed in the city in the early 1990s. Ahmed Hussen was among them. Their experiences – with poverty, racism and culture shock – were his experiences. And this feel-good stroll down Weston Road, the business strip of the Somali neighbourhood here, plays out like a spontaneous celebration of a monumental first. A perfect success story in the year of Canada’s 150th birthday.
Except that this is also the year of Donald Trump – and, so, the year of border walls, refugee bans and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Along the U.S. border with Manitoba and Quebec, asylum seekers, many of them Somali, have for weeks now been braving deep snow and freezing temperatures in a resolute effort to enter Canada. On the other side of the world, droves of refugees, many of them children fleeing war, are making their own dangerous runs at a better life as many countries slam their doors shut.
Ahmed Hussen’s first month on the job says it all. In early January, he was in Turkey, helping a Canadian project deliver school supplies to some of those child refugees, when he was called back to Ottawa for an unexpected meeting with the Prime Minister. The Saturday after he was sworn in to cabinet, he watched a room of newcomers in Toronto take their oath of citizenship – as he himself had done 15 years earlier. The next day, he held his first press conference just as chaos was breaking out in American airports over a proposed U.S. ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Mr. Hussen’s own former homeland. Before week’s end, the new minister, himself a father with young sons, attended a funeral for three fathers gunned down in a Quebec City mosque.
It was not lost on the new immigration minister that one of the first questions put to him by a reporter, about whether he would be swept up in the ban, required him to clarify his citizenship: “I hold only one passport,” he said, “and I am Canadian.”
Mr. Hussen, 40, has spent most of his adult life studying, debating, and expounding on what it means to truly belong in a country – as a community organizer for the poor, as a political staffer to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, as an immigration lawyer, and as the head of the Canadian Somali Congress. His rise is notable. But so, too, are the challenges he now faces: to manage an unpredictable, often-xenophobic American administration, to hold to Canadian values of openness against a worldwide tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. And, through it all, to keep Canadians safe.
This Friday, days after President Trump signed an amended immigration order in response to court challenges, Mr. Hussen met with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, in Ottawa, searching for common ground on a range of thorny border issues. Mr. Hussen has a reputation for courteous diplomacy, for treading carefully into contentious issues, and for having learned, as he puts it, “to focus on goals, not noise.” But the two men – one, a Muslim refugee turned immigration lawyer who speaks of the importance of balancing security and compassion, and who understands firsthand the plight of asylum seekers; the other, a hard-talking military general who has floated the idea of separating mothers from their children at the U.S.-Mexican border – are telling symbols of the diverging paths of their respective countries.