He was walking fast, hands in pockets, hood on and head down to shield his face from a strong Northern wind that was brining the day’s frigid temperatures to the minus twenties. It was very cold for a season called “early spring” in the rest of the world.
Every few metres, he looked over his shoulder.
I know this peculiar way of walking. I practise it too. It’s the do-I-have-the-time-to-reach-the-next-bus-stop-before-the-bus-comes walk. When the bus is late, as it is often the case in Ottawa, it’s better to get active than to freeze at the bus stop, especially if there is no shelter.
He slowed down.
“Don’t go to the next stop,” I advised. “The bus should be coming in three minutes.”
I shrugged. “Well, that’s what the schedule says. Can’t promise it’s true but I’m been waiting here for a few minutes and I don’t think I missed it.”
He paused, processing my words, then squinted at the print schedule. He smiled. “I wait.”
So, we waited together in the cold, and because I’m Canadian, I couldn’t help making small talk.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
This was a blunt question. I usually phrase it differently, for example I ask “what’s your background?” to be more politically correct because Canadians come in all shapes, colours and sizes, and chances are, the Black man or the Asian woman has been a citizen of this country for longer than me. But his accent and his behaviour led me to think he was actually a new immigrant and that he wouldn’t find my question too offensive.
He seemed happy I asked. “Somalia,” he replied. “I came here … two months.”
“You arrived two months ago?”
I looked at him more carefully. He was probably between seventeen and twenty-one. He was tall and lanky with big brown eyes, an easy smile and short hair under his hood. He has several recent but healed scars on his forehead, lighter gashes on his coffee-coloured skin.
“Wow … that must be difficult.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “Winter is cold. But people say spring and summer…” He showed me a thumb up to express enthusiasm. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it would be another two months, at least, for winter to be a distant memory.
“Yes, summer and fall are really nice seasons,” I agreed.
The bus arrived. We got in and moved to the back. We kept on chatting. He seemed to enjoy my English 101 questions.
“Did you come with your family?”
“My grandmother and my sister. My parents … dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you a student?”
“Yes, I’m a student. I study at Albert high school. What is your name?”
“My name is Juliette. And what is yours?”
“My name is Moham— …” he caught himself. “Mike. My name is Mike.”
I nodded. “Nice to meet you. Do you live around here?”
“I live on Caldwell,” he replied.
I know the street. It’s a couple of blocks from the newer residential neighbourhood where I live. Caldwell used to have a terrible reputation in Ottawa. Meth lab? Yep, Caldwell. Shooting? Caldwell. Stabbing? Caldwell. I walk through the area every day, though, and while I can see the recipe for trouble—social housing, new immigrants and unemployed locals, no businesses around but a convenience store whose owner is constantly convinced customers are going to steal from him—I’ve never actually seen any trouble. Ottawa has very high expectations in terms of safety. If you can’t leave your laptop and a suitcase full of gold on the sidewalk, it’s a “tough neighbourhood.”
“What is your dream?” I asked as the bus was approaching our stop.
His face lit up: “I want to go to university and study. Yes, I want that.”
“I hope your dream will come true,” I replied. We parted ways. “Good luck!”
Suddenly, I felt very proud to be Canadian, a country that welcomes the world and where, surely, this young immigrant was going to build a better life, a better future.
And then, I remembered that it’s not all warm fuzzy feelings and arms wide open around here. In Ottawa, a very sedate city by world standards, the Somalian community is often the easy scapegoat. They are among the newest newcomers from this war-torn part of the world few of us understand, they are black, they are Muslim and women often wear the hijab. Sure, they are a few rowdy teens and assholes, much like in every community. But I hear slurs associated to the word “Somali” way too often. This is the uncomfortable truth—yes, racism exists here too.
I don’t know the Somali community well. Many of its members came as refugees and live in Ottawa’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The only “interaction” I had with the community was walking by the Mosque and throwing back a ball to a handful of kids playing soccer while their parents were socializing.
Now, I will remember this young kid, freezing on a cold winter day, bussing between school and home, and his dream—studying and becoming someone.
I hope he becomes someone.
I hope he meets more locals who may see the community differently.