A man and a woman sit on a black leather couch with happy expressions on their faces

Ali Wasuge (left) shares a moment with his niece Iqra Ali Gaal at her home in Hamilton, Ont. © UNHCR/Chris Young

An unexpected connection brought them together in Canada

By Lauren La Rose

Sharing a birthplace and a mutual Facebook connection made it easy for Ali Wasuge and Iqra Ali Gaal to forge a friendship online. Yet after exchanging details about life in their homeland of Somalia, Wasuge soon realized just how deep their connection was.

“I asked Iqra… which village was she living in Mogadishu?  She told me (the name of) a village which I’m so familiar (with), where I also used to live.

“And then I asked her: ‘Maybe you are my neighbour?’”

As it turns out, they weren’t just linked by geography: they were bound by blood.

Civil war was among the reasons Wasuge left the eastern Africa nation of Somalia in September of 1992, two years before Gaal – his niece – was even born.

“Day after day, the situation was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t go back to my country. And I wasn’t financially (able) at that time to go to some other place than Ethiopia.”

He relocated to the capital of Addis Ababa, working as a translator at the Canadian Embassy. A decade later, he resettled in Canada as a refugee. He initially called London, Ont., home before later relocating to Toronto, finding work at the city’s international airport. He eventually met and settled down with his wife with whom he shares three children.

Born on New Year’s Day in 1994, Gaal had lived her entire life in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. She worked alongside her mother and sister as tea sellers in the market.  Most of the time, Gaal said her mother would send her home early and would work into the evening, with Fridays off to rest.

“Mum was a very hardworking woman with a vision of progressing in life.”

It would be a life cut brutally short.

One day in 2011, her mother never made it back home as gunfire erupted in the market.

“I wanted to escape to anywhere I would feel safe.”

“Mum got shot after fighting broke out between militia around the area,” Gaal recalled. “When she was taken to hospital she died.”

Sadly, personal tragedy continued to disrupt her path. “I had to escape Somalia after receiving threatening calls from al-Shabaab (militants) several times. I was scared,” she recalled.

“I wanted to escape to anywhere I would feel safe.”

She arrived in Jordan in March of 2013, and found friends to help connect her with the UN for support; but she was too far from siblings and other family members to lean on. Then in 2014, she lost her father who died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Years later, her newfound digital connection proved to be the lifeline she needed to embark on a pivotal next step. Eventually with UNHCR’s support, Wasuge was able to bring Gaal to Canada. Within just a year of their first interaction online, Wasuge was at Toronto’s Pearson airport with his wife and children to welcome Gaal into the fold.

Since arriving in February 2018, Gaal lives in an apartment in Hamilton, Ont.

“People I’ve met here are very good and they welcome me warmly,” said Gaal.

She heeded her uncle’s guidance of making education a priority to help integrate into Canadian life.

“People I’ve met here are very good and they welcome me warmly,”

Gaal is enrolled in the federally funded Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada program, or LINC, which offers free language training for eligible adult learners.

Gaal’s classroom at Collège Boréal in Hamilton is dotted with long lined sheets of white paper stuck with colourful cutouts of household items connected by key words. The goal is to help educate and inform the fledgling group of LINC students seeking to gain a better grasp of the English language.

“She’s always helping the other students,” said instructor Edward Cowan.

“She does her homework, she takes extra classes outside of school. She’s got great retention for the vocabulary and the grammar that she’s studied. So my experience with Iqra in class has been overall very, very positive.

“She’s always been quite confident and very open. And she’s not afraid of failure or taking any risks.”

Gaal hopes to pursue further studies and eventually work as a nurse, a passion she first nurtured during a course in Somalia.

Her uncle shares her hope for brighter days ahead.

“Iqra, she’s very kind, very loyal, very good personality,” said Wasuge. “I hope her future will be fruitful.”

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