Canada: Ryerson Somali student gets a say in reshaping social housing.

Halkaan ka akhri

Munira Abukar figures much of her young life has been shaped by the place she grew up. The fourth of nine children born to immigrants from Somalia, she has lived in Toronto social housing for all of her 18 years.

Now it’s her chance to witness the reshaping of that home. One of two board members recently elected by tenants, the Ryerson student will have a front-row seat as Mayor Rob Ford and his allies overhaul the troubled Toronto Community Housing Corp. The appointment of the new board – which still requires council approval at its June meeting – follows a leadership purge of the country’s largest landlord by the mayor and the installation of his hand-picked successor, former city councillor Case Ootes.

Ms. Abukar, who finished first in a weekend election ahead of returning tenant representative Catherine Wilkinson, is set to join the four councillors chosen Tuesday to sit on the board: Norm Kelly, Frances Nunziata, Cesar Palacio and John Parker, who will sit as the mayor’s designate. Community representatives have yet to be chosen.

The award-winning student – who graduated from the same high school as the mayor, Scarlett Heights Collegiate – says she has never been shy about speaking her mind. Even so, she expects her rapid-fire voice may struggle for attention at the boardroom table. As a first-generation Canadian, the teenager insists she has much to say.

“I think growing up in Toronto community housing really does humble someone and helps them understand the hardships and the prosperities of life,” Ms. Abukar explains. “Not everyone gets a chance at education. Not everyone gets a chance at living their dreams, at doing what they really want to do. There are some people that fall a bit behind in the race of life.”

Ms. Abukar, who just finished her first year as a criminal justice major, says her own dreams involve law school, a goal made easier by a two-year scholarship she won through Toronto Community Housing. In the short-term, she’s still looking for a summer job and has promised her mother that her new commitment as a board member won’t pull down her marks.

Running for the seat was important, she says, because her story – and that of her family – is such a common one among social-housing residents, yet it has been missing from the boardroom table.

“Looking at the demographics of Toronto Community Housing, those families that live there are families that are immigrant families, that come from places of war and trauma,” she says. “I feel there are a lot of people that I really speak to and a lot of people who speak to me and I should take that experience to the board.”

Ms. Abukar’s own parents fled the war in Somalia with their two oldest children, a son and a daughter, her father coming first and her mother following. Her dad has driven a cab for about 20 years. Her only brother is with the Canadian military stationed in New Brunswick. Her oldest sister is at OCAD University and another is studying nursing.

In a week when a violent shooting has once again put the city’s social-housing projects in the headlines, Ms. Abukar says she has generally felt connected and a sense of community in her Etobicoke neighbourhood. She argues greater community engagement, not just extra security, is required to reduce the incidence of violence, but says larger questions for society also are at play.

The current talk of privatization scares her, Ms. Abukar says, but she does not want to comment on the recent spending scandal or speculate on what the new board might do.

“There is an opportunity for a fresh start,” she says. “I want to be a part of that.”

Source: The Global and Mail

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