Canada must give young Somali Canadians more opportunities to succeed or they will remain at high risk of being recruited into extremist organizations and gangs, two ministers from the independent government of Puntland in northeast Somalia said.
The government ministers – both are Canadian and Somali – echoed concerns from within the Toronto diaspora that youth are turning to criminal activity because they lack job and education opportunities here.
"That's bad for the Canadians, and bad for the Somali community," said Mohamud Hagi Salah, minister of agriculture for Puntland. "So before it happens, they need to collaborate, the government and the parents. Parents need to watch their children and the government needs to come up with the programs."
The government of Puntland declared autonomy from Somalia in 1998, hoping to distance the region from the civil war raging further south. Mr. Salah and Abdi Farah Saeed, now the minister of education for Puntland, each moved from their homes in Mississauga and Montreal to join the Puntland government several years ago.
About a third of Somalia's 10 million people live in the region.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail in advance of a Wednesday night presentation about their government's work, the ministers called on Canada to be more pro-active in aiding both Somalia and the diaspora community. Mr. Saeed said Canadian-Somalis who were born in Canada are at the greatest risk, because they're often disconnected from their parents' homeland and the society they grew up in.
"The second generation is lost. And that's why you see some of them are joining the extremists, recruited from here, elsewhere, in the States and Europe," he said. "I think that's where the risk is, and Canada has to focus on this."
Canada should also do more development and diplomatic work in Somalia, Mr. Saeed said, adding it would improve security for both countries. He said young people who are recruited to fight with al-Shabab may change their minds after they arrive – but have no place to turn to for help.
"If you have the foothold there, where you can reach Canadians always, you know even those who are lost in the system in Somalia, they always can contact that place," Mr. Saeed said. "So if some are recruited to al-Shabab, they can reach [out]. It will be a contact."
Life in southern Somalia is still very dangerous, the ministers said. But they believe the country can be rebuilt quickly – once security improves enough to draw some of the two million people in the diaspora back.
"It all depends on the security aspect. If the country gets better, security-wise, the people will go back. And I think Somalia will be rebuilt very fast," Mr. Saeed said.
In the meantime, he said he worries about the safety of some young people in the Somali-Canadian community.
Since 2005, at least 23 young Somali-Canadian men have died in Alberta. Some of those men moved from Toronto and Ottawa in search of work in the oil fields, only to end up involved in the violent drug trade. Others, according to community members, were cases of mistaken identity or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And in recent months, three young men were shot and killed in Toronto in the span of just a few weeks.
The violence has taken a heavy toll on the Somali-Canadian community, which has been holding meetings and discussion groups to determine what they can do to help keep young people safe.
Some worried parents in Canada are sending their children to the East African country out of fear they have become involved in criminal activity – a sign, the ministers said, that Canada needs to ensure that better support is available here. "If Canadians were helping these children and having programs for them, the parents would never send them back. I think that's what the Canadians are missing right now. " Mr. Salah said.