Work underway on Somali-Canadian heritage museum in Edmonton

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By Jonny Wakefield

Saturday May 4, 2019 (RBB NEWS) – Posing in front of a mural of a Somailwomen on May 2, 2019, Naima Haile and the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton are developing a Somaili cultural museum focusing on the history of Somali people in Edmonton. Ed Kaiser / Postmedia   

A local Somali Canadian group is planning to open a museum chronicling the history and culture of the community in Edmonton.

Organizers with the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton hope the museum will help educate the public at large about the Somali community — and connect Somali-Canadian youth who have never been to Somalia with their heritage. The organizers believe it will be the first such museum in Canada.

“It’s basically about who we are, how we got here, what happened to us, what we had and what we lost,” said museum director Naima Haile.

The museum does not have an opening date, but cultural society president Jibril Ibrahim said they hope to start rolling out exhibits in the summer. It will be located in the Bosco Foundation building in the city’s Balwin neighbourhood, 6770 129 Ave., where the Somali society has its headquarters.

“We want to use the place not only for the general population of Albertans, but also there are a lot of kids who are born in Alberta who grew up here who are not connected to the history and the culture of the Somali people,” said Ibrahim. “If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Somalis have a long history in Canada. While many came as refugees following the country’s civil war in the early 1990s, a number of Somalis came to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s as students, sent by the Somali government.

Ibrahim said Edmonton has Canada’s third largest Somali population, behind Toronto and Ottawa. Many initially settled in cities in eastern Canada before realizing the opportunities available in smaller cities in the west.

Haile estimated there are nearly 20,000 Somali people in Edmonton. According to Statistics Canada, there were 4,590 Somali-born people living in the city in 2016. Most immigrated in two waves — between 1991 and 2000, following the Somali civil war and collapse of the country’s central government, and between 2011 and 2016.

Haile, who works in the settlement sector, came to Canada as a refugee in 1990, moving to Edmonton from Hamilton four years ago. Ibrahim arrived as a refugee the year before.

They said the idea for a museum came about around four years ago during a meeting at a restaurant. North America’s first Somali heritage museum opened in Minnesota in 2013.

“Some of us have collections of stuff from Somalia, like jewelry, carvings, (baskets), things that we brought from there to here after we were dislocated,” Haile said.

In addition to Somali artifacts, organizers are developing a digital, interactive library that will explain Somali history, from prior to the country gaining independence, through to the civil war and its aftermath. They plan to open the museum to school groups, and make digital materials available for lessons.

“We want to write our narrative, showcase our culture, who we are, what we had before, what happened to us and our journey to settle in Canada,” she said.

Ibrahim and Haile added that telling their community’s story offers a way to push back against xenophobia and Islamophobia.

“The best way to fight those kind of people is with knowledge,” said Ibrahim. “If you bring them in, if you eat with them, if you show them hospitality and how kind you are, they get to know you.”

The museum is the subject of a Jane’s Walk Haile is leading on Saturday. Part of a series of locally organized tours named after famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, the walk will focus on the Somali community and its history in the city’s Queen Mary Park and Central McDougall neighbourhoods.

The Jane’s Walk is scheduled to begin 1 p.m. Saturday at the Central McDougall Diversity Centre, 10508 107 Ave.