Abdulrahman Elmi has called a group of young Somali-Canadian men to a community centre in the north Toronto neighbourhood of Rexdale. They have a lot of work ahead.
The group owes its existence to the now-infamous – yet never publicly seen – video, the one in which Toronto Mayor Rob Ford allegedly smokes crack cocaine from a glass pipe, slurring as he comments on the high school football team he once coached and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
The Somali-Canadian Association of Etobicoke was one of four Ontario organizations that got a share of the $202,000 that U.S. website Gawker raised in a bid to buy the video. The donation, about $47,000, has started to crystallize into a new mentoring program aimed at steering elementary and high school students toward college and university and away from drugs and gangs.
"I think something like this is needed in our community because we have a lot of youth issues here. Basically, change is needed here," said Mr. Elmi, 23, a recent graduate of York University. He was hired in December as the project co-ordinator.
The program, slated to start in mid-February, is expected to include as many as 40 youths between the ages of 12 and 16 and about a dozen mentors in their 20s. The group will meet regularly, going over homework, talking about challenges, playing basketball and other games. The program will be open to people of all ethnic backgrounds, but will mainly be geared toward Somali-Canadians.
In recent years, murder has touched more than 30 Somali-Canadian families, mostly in Alberta and Ontario. The victims have chiefly been young men, born in Somalia and raised in Canada after their families fled a brutal civil war.
Police believe many of the deaths were connected to the drug trade.
In mid-June of last year, Toronto police raided homes in Toronto, Windsor and Alberta, seizing guns, drugs and cash as part of a year-long investigation known as Project Traveller. Many of the 60 or so people arrested were from the Somali-Canadian community, living in a cluster of apartment towers in Etobicoke.
Police allege that some of the accused were part of the Dixon City Bloods gang and had ties to the mayor. At least three of the men facing charges tried to sell a video of Mr. Ford, according to a nearly 500-page police document. The allegations have not been tested in court.
Mr. Elmi said he hopes some good can come from the notorious video that has upended city hall and directed an unflattering spotlight on Toronto's Somali-Canadian community.
"We want to turn something that was a negative into a positive," Mr. Elmi said. "We want to create role models for the youth."
The prospective mentors, gathered at a community centre about five kilometres north of the Dixon City Bloods' base, are students of post-secondary schools or recent graduates. Soleman Ahmed, 21, is studying accounting at Ryerson University; Said Mohamoud, 20, is focusing on business management at Humber College; Hanad Jibril, 20, is in George Brown College's civil engineering program. Another mentor studied professional writing and communication at the University of Toronto.
The young Muslim men all understand what it's like to navigate two worlds: Canada's multicultural and multifaith society, and their parents' more conservative Somali traditions.
"A lot of youth, especially growing up, they don't have someone to relate to. At home, their family from back home, they don't understand each other. And at school, they have to present a different personality," Mr. Ahmed told the group at a recent meeting.