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Mahad Yusuf, executive director at the Somali Immigrant Aid Organization, wants to help incoming refugees while also helping his community rebuild their reputation.Kevin Van Paassen

One thing Somali refugees quickly learned when they arrived in Toronto about two decades ago was the value of a good winter coat.

So when community leaders met in Mahad Yusuf's offices last weekend to talk about how they could help Syrian refugees, the subject of coats was high on the agenda.

"We did not dress properly for the winter," said Mr. Yusuf, head of the Somali Immigrant Aid Organization. "And we did not dress properly for the kids, either."

As with many aspects of the Somali experience in Canada, winter clothing proved more fraught than expected. Parents who sent their kids to school in a hoodie in February didn't have to contend just with chattering teeth, it turned out, but with the Children's Aid Society.

During the meeting, held above a nail salon in a Toronto strip mall, the group of imams and settlement workers discussed their coat drive for the incoming wave of refugees – the kind they wish someone had provided for them.

In recent weeks, many Somalis in Toronto have been looking to translate the often bitter, but occasionally hopeful lessons they learned as refugees into a virtual how-to manual for the Syrians just beginning to arrive via government airlift from the Middle East.

The two communities have much in common: both Muslim, both being survivors of war and both coming, or having come, to Canada en masse.

But for many Somalis, joining the aid effort is above all a chance to redeem their hardship in Canada by steering others away from the same fate.

"We're really excited to help them," said Ubah Farah, a Somali woman living in Toronto. "We want them to have a better experience than we experienced when we came 25 years ago."

Mr. Yusuf knows that many of the new arrivals will have received coats from the United Nations or Canadian authorities. He still thinks the extra gear will be useful.

"Who doesn't need two coats?" he said.

When Somalia was torn apart by clan uprisings in the late 1980s, an unlikely name began circulating in the refugee camps of East Africa: Diksan. It was spoken in a tone of longing and with an imperfect accent.

What the Somalis meant was Dixon, shorthand for a neighbourhood near Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Dominated by six hulking condo towers, it was once populated by seniors and young professional couples. But Somalis begin arriving in the late 1980s, drawn in part by its proximity to the airport, and soon the area was a household name in Mogadishu and environs – the 2011 National Household Survey found about 45,000 Canadians of Somali origin, though unofficial population estimates run much higher.

"Dixon was the Somali refugee dream city," Abdi Kusow and Stephanie Bjork wrote in their introduction to the book From Mogadishu to Dixon: The Somali Diaspora in a Global Context.

The dream soured quickly. In what would become a pattern, the community was obliquely wounded by a government body with no direct connection to refugee resettlement: In 1988, Transport Canada turned the airspace above the Dixon towers into a flight path for planes arriving at Pearson, which drove down condo values.

(In Dixon today, the sky still roars with jet engines and fills every few minutes with the dramatic rising bulk of commercial airliners.)

Between the noise and the flood of unfamiliar people with strange customs – many Canadians had never seen a hijab in the eighties – lots of white Dixon residents moved out.

"Maybe to the original owners that lived at Dixon Road, they would've said it was a disaster because they would have lost money and most of them, not all, but most of them did move out – and the actual condo buildings deteriorated," said Holland Marshall, a condo blogger who has studied Dixon extensively.

Those who stayed were often hostile to the Somalis, resenting their habit of filling a single unit with eight or 10 people, and their boisterous outdoor celebrations.

"Because of the Somali nature, we are outdoor people. We like in summer to come outside and when we talk, we talk loudly," said Faduma Mohamed, who came to Canada in 1995. "We talk with our hands like the Italian community. So people would hear all these people talking loudly and thought they were fighting so security would be called and were intervening with us and thinking there was real fighting going on when people were just talking and discussing their issues."

By the early nineties, racial tension was spilling into the open. A Place Called Dixon, a CBC documentary that aired in 1993, revealed ugly attitudes among long-time residents.

"A tribal community should never have been dumped in a condominium corporation," one elderly white condo owner said. "It's like you can't mix oil and water."

Worse were the security guards hired to monitor the Somalis. One of them patrolled the buildings with two German shepherds that he had named Allah and Mohammed.

The guards, meanwhile, had their own grievances: They said they had been beaten with bats by gangs of Somali youth.

Over time, those gangs became formalized. Young men traumatized by war and lost to the school system began presiding over the high-rise towers of Little Mogadishu, as the area came to be known. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that dozens of Somali-Canadian men had been killed from 2005 to 2012 in mostly drug trade-related incidents.

After festering for years, the problem of Somali crime burst onto the front pages of Toronto newspapers in 2013. The Toronto Star's bombshell report on the tape of former mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine used the word "Somali" 11 times to describe the men who were peddling the video to reporters. (The Star's managing editor later apologized for the gratuitous references.)

Less than a month later, Toronto Police descended on the Dixon towers in a massive gun and drug raid, arresting dozens of alleged gang members, most of them Somali.

The community's reputation had hit a low.

A desire to buff that image lies behind some of the eagerness to help – and to be seen helping. Somali leaders in Toronto are hyper-sensitive to their portrayal in popular culture, resentful of the parade of terrorists, thugs and pirates that often stand in for Somalis in media and movies.

Mr. Yusuf hopes to add "humanitarians" to that list of stock characters.

Somalis think highly of Syria, where many of them settled after being driven from their homes in the 1990s, attracted by the Assad regime's relatively open refugee policy for members of the Arab League.

But more than that, Somalis working on behalf of the Syrians seem fired by an urge to impart lessons they learned the hard way. "This community is not a rich community that can give them much. But there's a lot of experience that I'm telling you that we can share with them," Mr. Yusuf said.

"Success to me is being able to offer these kinds of resources. The kind of skills we have developed in trying to navigate the system," Mr. Yusuf said. "When we arrived, we were blind, completely blind. We had no idea what to do. So it is a success. It's a big success."

Advice pours out when the topic of Syrians comes up. What emerges from these discussions with Somalis in Toronto is a picture of how complex and sustained any successful refugee integration must be. A constellation of people has to be involved, from the usual suspects (teachers, settlement workers, the refugees themselves) to informal and sometimes unwilling actors, such as landlords, police, the legal profession, even pharmacists and grocers.

The biggest challenges for Somalis in Toronto revolved around keeping families together and keeping children in school.

Teenage boys were an especially hard case. Shaken by war back home and unused to the drudgery of the classroom, many of them became restless and violent. Children and parents alike were stunned by the strictness of the official reaction to hallway scuffles.

Stir-crazy Somali children were also hastily diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and developmental delays, which offended their parents and stigmatized the students.

Meanwhile, Mr. Yusuf said, the way Somali students were assigned school grades caused many to drop out. Children were usually placed in the grade that corresponded with their age rather than their level of education.

"That was a complete set-up for failure," he said. "And that's why many of our kids left school. How you going to give a 12-year-old kid who's never been to school a Shakespeare book?"

Aside from battling with the school system to keep their children out of trouble, Mr. Yusuf said, Syrian parents should be ready to tailor their parenting style to Canadian norms or risk losing their kids to the children's aid system.

Corporal punishment is considered perfectly acceptable in Somali culture, but that practice landed some refugee parents in hot water.

An even bigger source of discord was changing gender roles, which Mr. Yusuf said he expects Syrians to wrestle with.

The availability of welfare for women, strict laws around spousal violence and bad job prospects for men combined to undermine the traditional balance of domestic power.

"The role change, female and male, that caused lots of family separation," he said. "In Canada, Somali women became the head of the family. … They were empowered."

That was great for the women, Mr. Yusuf said, but also resulted in too many boys being raised without fathers.

The Somali community, knit together by organizations such as Mr. Yusuf's, is still figuring out its strategy for delivering physical aid and expert counsel to the Syrians. They want to host workshops, visit the new arrivals in their hotels and give out flyers.

For now, Somalis such as Ilham Bana, a settlement counsellor, content themselves with offering tentative words of wisdom.

"My advice to the Syrian refugees would be: It's okay to be homesick," Ms. Bana said.

Recently landed Somalis will often approach her and ask for travel permits to go back home, she said.

She said she tells them: "Give it another year or two. I know you're not able to find work right now, but you'll find it."

That's what Ms. Bana wants to impress on Syrians arriving in Canada. "Confidence," she said. "Or just hope."

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