Somali refugee finds safety in Calgary after searching for a home in 3 countries

Ahmed Abdi was just 12 years old when he watched gunmen shooting people in the street near his school in Somalia. He spent years moving between refugee camps before finding a home.

'I lost most of my time to being a refugee, being a survivor of life,' says Ahmed Abdi

Ahmed Abdi is from Somalia. He had a long journey to Canada via Kenya and South Africa. He came in search of safety — and opportunity. (CBC)

The recent arrival of Syrian refugees in Calgary represents the latest wave of people fleeing danger in search of a better life. With #yycRefugee, we feature some of the people who have made that journey in the past. They now call Calgary home.

Ahmed Abdi recalls the talk around town that day back in 1992.

Ahmed was 12 years old and living with his family in Garbahare, a small city in Somalia, when he heard the rumours that government forces would soon clash with rebels.

"We didn't take it seriously," said Ahmed. "Dad went to work and mom was doing daily household jobs. But everything changed."

Ahmed was at school with his brothers when the fighting broke out in the city. He was unable to find them in the chaos.

"People were firing bullets in every direction regardless who was crossing the streets. So you can see people lying on the ground wounded — you can see people who have died on the streets. It was a very disastrous issue that people were carelessly being shot by some gunmen. I saw it with my own eyes."

Ahmed Abdi on the day in 1992 when street fighting broke in his hometown in Somalia. 1:43

Ahmed did manage to make it home safely — only to find the house a mess and his parents gone.

"I was so scared," said Ahmed. "I can hear a lot of sounds — bullets, horrible crashes. Very nervous because I couldn't find my own family."

He was 12 years old — and alone.

The neighbours help him

Ahmed's saviours that day turned out to be his neighbours. They had packed up their truck to flee the fighting — and were backing out of their driveway.

"When they saw me they told me don't go anywhere, we'll take you to your mom and dad," said Ahmed. "They said, if your brothers and family are alive, then you will reunite. That's what they told me and they said 'let's go.'"

Ahmed jumped into the truck and drove more than 600 kilometres south with his neighbours to the Kenyan border.

After arriving, they were sent to a refugee camp.

Ahmed hears from his family

Ahmed established a new life in the refugee camp — living with his neighbours and resuming his studies.

One day, news arrived that his family had survived and they were living in another camp in Kenya.

"It was not easy for me to go and travel to them due to financial issues and due to my school," said Ahmed, who was then a teenager. "I used to talk with my mom and I had information from them that they are good and alive."

Ahmed stayed at his camp and continued with school. But, the neighbours who had saved him in Somalia found out they were being allowed to move to the United States.

"When that family got resettlement from the U.S., they moved. But not with me because I was not the same surname, not their family. I was just a neighbour person who was living with them. So when they packed up, I finished my school."

Ahmed Abdi explains why he left his Kenyan refugee camp and his family behind to seek out a new life in South Africa. 0:36

Knowing his fate would not improve in refugee camps in Kenya, Ahmed set his sights elsewhere. Through a friend who lived in South Africa, he heard about opportunities in that country.

Lands in jail 

Ahmed left Kenya for South Africa in 2002. But he had to travel across other African countries to get there.

In Tanzania, he was thrown in jail because he had no documents from his birthplace, only a refugee card.

Ahmed Abdi shown here in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 2008. Ahmed would marry, have three children, and open his own store in South Africa. But he says it wasn't a safe place for refugees. (Submitted by Ahmed Abdi)

"They kept me in prison for a few months," said Ahmed.

"Finally they gave me notice to leave the country and go to another refugee centre. But I didn't go back. I went to Mozambique and went on to South Africa."

Another country as a refugee

Ahmed did find a home — and some stability — living as a refugee in South Africa. He married and had three children and also became a shopkeeper.

But danger was never far away.

"Many refugees went there to have a better life,'" said Ahmed. "But it became overcrowded. The South African nationals, they seemed to hate us more and more and the situation was deteriorating."

Ahmed says one day the situation became too much.

Ahmed Abdi talks about the violent incident in South Africa that prompted him to seek refugee status again. Eventually, Canada came calling. 0:58

"I was attacked by some criminals who were trying to rob me. When they came in the shop they asked me where's the cash, where's the money, then they hit me with their own gun like a stick. I got nine stitches on my head."

Ahmed reported the incident to police. He also went to speak to officials with the United Nations — to try convince them that it was not safe for Ahmed and his family to remain in South Africa.

Ahmed Abdi says he was attacked and beaten by thieves in South Africa one day. He took his case to the United Nations and it eventually agreed to help resettle Ahmed and his family. (Submitted by Ahmed Abdi)

"I took that case to the U.N. office and told them — 'I came here to get a life but my life is seeming to get worse.' They've taken my documents and police affidavit and they said we will call you," said Ahmed. "I just carried on, struggled on."

It took another three years for Ahmed to hear the news he was waiting for from the U.N.

"They said you deserve to get resettlement but we don't know which country will give you resettlement. Just take your time, go home, and we will call you one day. I said 'thank you guys.'"

Ahmed went home and waited another year before receiving another phone call — this one from the Canadian embassy. He quickly accepted the offer for him and his family to relocate to Canada as refugees.

A new home, a new start

For the third time, Ahmed would arrive in a new country as a refugee.

He and his family touched down in Halifax in September 2013.

"They gave me an option — you can stay there or you can go anywhere. Canada is Canada," recalls Ahmed. "I told them I want to go to Calgary because I have a friend there and people who will help me because I have kids, and winter was coming."

The family then travelled on to Calgary. Within days of arriving, they were greeted by one of those early-season snowfalls.

"They used to tell me this was the heaviest snow in 20 years!"

Ahmed Abdi holds photos of his wife, Maryam, and children Abdulkadir, Muntaz, and Abdishakur. The family has settled in Calgary and Ahmed works for a printing company. (CBC)

"It was really very easier for me because of the family and friends who were here. They facilitated for me all kinds of life. They told me where and how to — like taking my kids to school."

Ahmed also credits the support he received from the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

"A volunteer came every Tuesday to take me downtown, library and many places to teach me about Calgary. They helped me forget about the past and think about my future." 

Ahmed, his wife and three children have settled into a townhouse in southwest Calgary. Ahmed has a job with a printing company. Life is good.

He says he keeps in touch with his mother, who still lives in Kenya. "Every month I send her money and support her. Even today I spoke to my brothers and sisters today and they send me pictures," he said.

Third time lucky

After arriving in three different places as a refugee, Ahmed says he is happy to call Canada — and Calgary — home.

Ahmed Abdi explains why he wants to become a Canadian citizen. 0:50

"My life in Canada is much better than the other lives I had because of the safety, we are safe — because of the job opportunities, equal rightness, all those things different from the other countries," said Ahmed. "This country allows you to exercise your own life without any hindrance or without any obstacles."

Ahmed now has permanent resident status in Canada. In 19 months, he can apply for his Canadian citizenship.

"I lost most of my time to being a refugee, being a survivor of life. My hope now is to think about my kids not being same route as me. I want them to study hard, go to university, go to college, that is my hope. I tell them they're so lucky." 

With files from Ellis Choe