Day 6

How Abdoul Abdi's defenders helped keep him from being deported

The former child refugee was convicted of aggravated assault, setting off a deportation hearing that would have sent him to Somalia, a country he doesn't know.

It all started with a prison phone call from the nephew of Ashley Smith

Abdoul Abdi, who came to Canada as a child refugee with his sister and aunts, was never given citizenship. After serving time in prison for a slew of offences, he faced the threat of deportation. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The campaign to stop Abdoul Abdi's deportation started with a phone call from prison.

Abdi, a former child refugee, was coming near the end of his prison term for a slew of offences, including aggravated assault. 

He had come to Canada as a six-year-old and was quickly taken into the care of child welfare services in Nova Scotia. He spent his childhood between 31 different foster homes.

Abdoul Abdi's former cellmate in prison is the nephew of Ashley Smith, the teenager who died in prison in 2007. (Courtesy of the Smith family)

No one had applied for Abdi's citizenship while he was in the custody of the province, and lacking Canadian citizenship, his criminal conviction triggered a deportation hearing.  

His then-cellmate, Jordan Ward, happened to be the nephew of Ashley Smith, the teenager who died in 2007 while in custody at the Grand Valley Institution.

"Because of the experience that that family had had with experiencing state injustice, I think [Abdi's cellmate] was able to recognize the pain that Abdoul was going through," says El Jones, a Halifax-based poet, professor and activist.

During a phone call with his mother, Ward spoke about Abdi's predicament. His mother, who knew Jones through her advocacy for women in prison, reached out to her and asked if there was anything she could do.

"And so this young man, Jordan, ended up giving up his phone time, you know, to make sure that I could talk on the phone to Abdul and Abdul could tell me his story," Jones told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Abdi's story was shared across the country, gaining him supporters from across the country and calling for the to halt to Abdi's deportation.

El Jones, a Halifax-based poet, professor and activist. (Sinisa Jolic)

On Tuesday evening, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tweeted that the federal government would no longer pursue the deportation of Abdi.

His tweet follows a Federal Court judge's decision last week to set aside Abdi's deportation hearing because the federal government hadn't properly considered Abdi's Charter rights.

In his tweet, Goodale said the government will respect that decision.

The news was a relief to Abdi and his family,  as well as a network of advocates who kept Abdi's name and his story in the news for the past year.

At a time particularly when we have a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric ... you can start to believe that that's the majority opinion.- El Jones, Halifax poet, professor and activist

They had become a thorn in the sides of politicians, showing up at their public events and protesting outside their offices.

In a key moment in the public campaign, Jones and Desmond Cole, a Toronto journalist and activist, asked Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen about Abdi's case at a summit. 

At a town hall event in Halifax, Abdi's sister Fatouma asked Justin Trudeau why his government would deport her brother.

'Brave moment' for Abdi's sister

At that Halifax meeting, Trudeau conceded that Abdi had been failed by the system, Jones said.

"I always think of Fatuma standing there about 100 metres from the prime minister and standing there so strong for her brother," Jones said.

"That is such a big moment, in such a brave moment on her behalf. She was shaking but she did it anyway because she loves her brother so much."

Fatouma Abdi, Abdoul's sister, was among his fiercest advocates. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Jones says Abdi was "always in good hands" because of his lawyer, Benjamin Perryman.

"But as we know what happens in court is often obscure to people," Jones said, adding that the public rally sent the message that people across the country felt strongly about Abdi's case.

"That's very, very important at a time particularly when we have a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric and you can start to believe that that's the majority opinion."

Jones says many Canadians are repulsed by the separation of refugee claimant children from their parents in the United States, Jones said.

"But what I would say to those people is Abdoul was six years old when he was taken into the care of the state; when he was taken into child welfare. And those children, when they grow up, will experience many of the same traumas that Abdoul experienced," Jones said. 

"Abdoul was an innocent child too."

To hear the full interview with El Jones, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.