Ubuntu in Fredericton: Somali newcomer keeps up an African tradition of helping others

·8 min read
Ubuntu in Fredericton: Somali newcomer keeps up an African tradition of helping others
Yusuf Shire, 32, is originally from Somalia and came to New Brunsiwck in 2007. Ever since, he has been a volunteer for the New Brunswick African Association. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC - image credit)
Yusuf Shire, 32, is originally from Somalia and came to New Brunsiwck in 2007. Ever since, he has been a volunteer for the New Brunswick African Association. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC - image credit)

Yusuf Shire was at a work meeting in Fredericton when a newcomer from Burundi called.

The man had just been held at gunpoint at his home on Gregg Court near the University of New Brunswick.

The caller's voice trembled as he spoke to Shire in rapid sentences about what he and his roommates had just gone through.

Without hanging up, Shire rushed a co-worker out the door and asked him for a drive to Gregg Court. The newcomer was no longer there, but Shire got permission from police to collect some of his belongings.

"I remember thinking his life could have been taken," said the 32-year-old Shire, who is originally from Somalia.

When Shire found him, the man was in shock and alone in a hotel room, where police had taken him.

Like many New Brunswick newcomers from African countries, this man had known that Shire, the president of the New Brunswick African Association, would be the person to call for help.

The Gregg Court incident that Shire was called to last fall is the subject of a criminal case now before the courts.
The Gregg Court incident that Shire was called to last fall is the subject of a criminal case now before the courts.

Ubuntu

Shire is used to getting phone calls late at night or in the middle of a work day that require him to drop what he's doing and, since he has no car, pay for a cab or ask a friend for a ride to where he's needed.

And Shire does so willingly every time.

When he left a Kenyan refugee camp for Canada in 2007, he carried a small bag of possessions and a big lesson.

It came from his grandparents when he was growing up in the camp: helping others always comes first.

Almost every day, Shire would see his grandparents bring orphaned kids to their shelter at the camp to eat.

"Without knowing these people, they were helping them," said Shire. "They raised them as family."

Yusuf Shire in the Fredericton airport welcoming newcomers.
Yusuf Shire in the Fredericton airport welcoming newcomers.

In Africa, he said, this philosophy of kindness is called ubuntu.

"Ubuntu means 'I am, because we are.' That is our culture. It is our way of life."

Shire has a full-time job as a settlement worker at the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, and volunteers nights and weekends with the New Brunswick African Association.

Sometimes, the people who call him are victims of racist attacks who need him to be their interpreter with police or to follow up with reported incidents.

Other times, they need Shire to translate documents to English from Swahili or Somali or accompany them to apartment viewings and school appointments.

Every so often, the calls and emails come from a much greater distance, from Africans who want to know more about the quality of life in New Brunswick before they emigrate.

"I can take the load," he said. "I do this for my community. That is ubuntu."

WATCH | Yusuf Shire describes the work done by the NBAA for immigrants from African countries

Finding funding

The New Brunswick African Association was created in Fredericton in 1999.

Its headquarters are a tiny office in the Fredericton Intercultural Center with red tile floors, a desk, an old couch and colourful posters about the group tucked in a corner.

The African Association is made up of nine volunteers, who organize anti-racism programs, soccer games and community food distribution and who help immigrants from African countries find housing and jobs.

Today, the association helps about 800 immigrants across the province.

Shire works nights and weekends trying to help answer the needs of immigrants from African countries.
Shire works nights and weekends trying to help answer the needs of immigrants from African countries.

Once a year, the group receives a grant from the government to pay for a two-day event called AfroFest, which is hosted in different New Brunswick cities each year.

People throughout Canada come together during the event with dance, music, food and workshops on African culture.

"But the grassroots community work, those are the things that we have no support for from the government yet," said Shire.

The group holds community fundraisers to help pay for its work.

"We put our time and sometimes our own money as we try to create programs and awareness regarding these issues, especially when it comes to racism and violent attacks in our community."

The 2020 AfroFest was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and plans for this year are uncertain.
The 2020 AfroFest was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and plans for this year are uncertain.

But this year, Shire will apply for government funding and try to expand the work done by the association.

He can see ways to put the money to use. For instance, he would like to set up a scholarship fund to help African youth going to college or university.

Fatuma Ali, the group's vice-president, works closely with Shire. She is from Kenya and moved to Fredericton with her son and daughter in 2017.

"For me, the dream is to employ people to have more programs for kids and teenagers."

Ali is a full-time student at St. Thomas University, where she's studying sociology and gender studies.

Every week, she drives Somali women in Fredericton, some of whom are single mothers, to their medical appointments and shopping and gives them lessons on personal hygiene.

Based in Ottawa, the Burundi Drummers attended AfroFest in Moncton last year.
Based in Ottawa, the Burundi Drummers attended AfroFest in Moncton last year.

Hands-on work

According to Shire, Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton are the New Brunswick cities with the highest number of African immigrants, with the latter topping the list because many newcomers speak French.

"Our community shares upcoming programs and events with each other and we used to have a lot of potlucks," said Shire of a time before COVID-19.

The community, tight-knit as it is, also shares stories of racist attacks when they hear of one near them. And these stories are always shared with Shire.

Owan Ahuka and his family have had support from Shire for eight years.
Owan Ahuka and his family have had support from Shire for eight years.

In the last year, Shire has met some people from African countries who have been victims of attacks in Fredericton.

For example, the man who was held at gunpoint in a Fredericton house by a white man.

Someone has been charged in the case, which is still before the courts, but for weeks this man and the other victims were afraid to leave their home, even though they were moved to a new house in the city.

"We were doing wellness checks," Shire said. "We connected them with victim services, so they can get counselling. The anxiety is there, the depression is there."

Shire would buy them groceries and visit them every few days.

Volunteers with the New Brunswick African Association prepare and sort the food that they will then distribute to the African community in Fredericton.
Volunteers with the New Brunswick African Association prepare and sort the food that they will then distribute to the African community in Fredericton.

"It's making them think, 'Is this the right place to live?' It puts the work on NBAA again to try to convince them to stay," said Shire.

Shire is also familiar with the attacks against immigrants on Doone Street, a public housing neighbourhood in Fredericton's north side.

Owan Ahuka's family lives in Wilson Row, a cul de sac off Doone Street, and was victim of attacks by neighbours.

"He tried to help us solve problems and follow up on incidents," Ahuka, 23, said of Shire, whom he's known for eight years. "Even before he was president, he was a close person to us."

Not afraid

A lot of the work Shire does is exhausting and might sound frightening.

Cabbing in the middle of the night to homes where cars have been slashed. Rushing to the hospital to tend to people with wounds. Getting calls related to standoffs. Translating depressing accounts of situations from Somali to English, back and forth, over and over again.

But Shire is not afraid, and he's definitely not exhausted.

Last year, one of the Black History Month activities organized by the association  was to bake mandazis, which are fried dough desserts similar to doughnuts. They originated in the coastal region of Kenya and Tanzania.
Last year, one of the Black History Month activities organized by the association was to bake mandazis, which are fried dough desserts similar to doughnuts. They originated in the coastal region of Kenya and Tanzania.

Shire loves New Brunswick, and he wants members of his community to feel the same way.

"I tell people if they stay here, they can be part of the change. Moving to a bigger city won't make any difference. You can experience these issues anywhere you go."

"We know the issues of our community better than anybody else. We must lead this conversation, but we won't be able to without support."

Keeping a tradition alive

Shire still remembers how every month in the refugee camp, his family would wait for food from the United Nations, not knowing what they would get. Two kilos of flour, some oil.

Living in a camp is a lot of waiting without knowing what will happen next, he said.

But now, Shire spends his days planning for the future — with people he met on his arrival in Canada and who have become family, but also, and for those still trying to leave refugee camps.

"My grandparents, in a foreign country without knowing people, they dedicated their life in helping the orphaned kids and people in our community," said Shire.

"I want to continue this tradition."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.