#TorontoIsFailingMe: I tried to improve my neighbourhood and got arrested

#TorontoIsFailingMe: I tried to improve my neighbourhood and got arrested
Toronto’s inner suburbs have become shorthand for crumbling postwar apartment blocks, underfunded schools or gang warfare. They’re among the neighbourhoods with the lowest incomes in the city, the longest trek to a TTC stop, and the highest concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. This month, we’re sharing stories from Torontonians who live in the inner suburbs, told in their own words. Some are shocking, some tragic, some hopeful. Together, they convey an urgent truth: Toronto is failing too many of its citizens. Have a story of your own? Tweet, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #TorontoIsFailingMe to tell us.

Mohamed Farah, 34
Dixon Road

In 1989, when I was nine, my parents fled the escalating civil war in Somalia, moving me and my two siblings to Windsor. I fit in quickly at school, where I made friends from Lebanon, ­Czechoslovakia and Cambodia. I loved it there: we would roam around the neighborhood, trade cards and comics, catch frogs. Then one day a friend of my mother’s told us about a neighbourhood in Toronto called Dixon with a growing Somali population.

A few months later, in the summer of 1992, we moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Dixon. Back then the area was called Little Pakistan. The first time I went grocery shopping with my mother, somebody yelled, “Go back to where you came from, Paki!” There was a sense of different ethnicities struggling to co­exist in the area. You had people of Irish, ­Italian, Pakistani, Polish, Ukrainian, Indian and West Indian descent. In Windsor, the community was diverse, but we stuck together.

At the same time, many more new refugees were coming to Canada from our home country. I remember crossing the street on my way home from school and seeing some of the Somali kids dive to the ground after a car backfired. I was lucky that I had never lived through their traumatic experiences.

My mother was an entrepreneur in Mogadishu, and noticed that there was a demand for Somali traditional and religious clothing among the women in Dixon. She got a second-hand sewing machine and started making clothes. One of the rooms in our apartment became her store, so my siblings and I had to share a room. I acted as a translator for many of my mom’s clients, helping them fill out official forms and going to meetings with their kids’ teachers.

As I got older, I got involved in community work out of concern for other young Somalis. I joined the Dixon Youth Network, which runs initiatives like a basketball league to try and keep the kids off the streets. The youth in the neighbourhood lack access to services like a recreation centre and after-school programs. They hang out on street corners and get into trouble with the police. It’s hard to avoid—guys at my high school asked me to sell drugs at local clubs. Instead I chose to work as a cook at The Keg. I saw those guys drive up to the restaurant in their fancy cars. But they soon got arrested for drug offences.

One day, a guy from the neighbourhood approached me with a video that appeared to show mayor Rob Ford ­smoking crack. He asked me to act as a broker and try to sell the video to a news company. I was wary of getting involved but thought making the video public would expose corruption. Then the whole thing blew up in my face: I was arrested when the police raided our building and some of the other Dixon towers as part of the Project ­Traveller investigation. I was charged with possession of a gun, even though I’ve never owned one in my life. The charges were dropped after a year. Instead of the former mayor being held accountable, Dixon got stigmatized, and my relationship with other Somalis in the neighbourhood became strained.

The police have since rolled out initiatives to rebuild a relationship with the community, but that’s not going to solve the root problems: unemployment, ­underfunded schools and a lack of services such as family counselling. I know parents who are worried about their kids joining extremist groups or gangs. If the issues of neighbourhoods like Dixon aren’t addressed now, I can see how they could escalate into a situation like the Ferguson riots.

—as told to Aparita Bhandari


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