The introductions are a formality meant for any newcomers to the weekly Saturday meeting, called to order before much of the city is awake.
But, in truth, the women inside this Weston Road classroom already know each other intimately. They’re neighbours and friends who call each other “sister.” They know all too well why they’re here.
There’s Shamso Mohamoud, whose 18-year-old son was shot in the head near a Yorkdale Mall housing complex in 2008.
There’s Shamso Elmi, whose 24-year-old son was killed in 2015 in Vancouver.
There’s Ayan Ali Abddow, whose 17-year-old son was fatally stabbed outside an Etobicoke apartment in 2016.
There’s a mother whose son is recovering from a stabbing — “he’s alive, thank God,” she says — and a young woman whose brother was recently fatally shot, and yet another who had buried her nephew Irshad the day before. He was shot and left on the side of a Kitchener highway last month.
“We are all nervous in the neighbourhoods that we live in — and if there is one problem with one family, it affects all of us,” says Halima Adan, a Jane and Finch-area mother who fears for her son’s safety.
Every woman here has been touched by the violence they say is crippling their community.
But this is not a support group, though it serves that function, too. Rather the 100-plus women in the Mending a Crack in the Sky initiative are an example of what happens when grief is channelled into action, when anger fuels a drive for change.
And on Monday, they are set to achieve a years-long goal when the Toronto police board is expected to formalize a partnership board chair Jim Hart calls “unprecedented.”
If passed, the mothers will play an active role in bridging the wide gap between their community and police. They’ll meet directly with police chief Mark Saunders and help broker lines of communication with local police officers working in the city’s west side, where many Somali families live. It could serve as a pilot project for other community-police partnerships.
The move comes at the end of a year that’s seen record levels of gun violence: More than 270 people have been killed or injured in shootings so far in 2019, dozens more than the highest year-end total in 15 years.
The mothers say their Canadian-born Somali youth face disproportionate gun and gang violence, and the north-west part of Toronto — the area many call home — hasonce again been a hotspot for shootings this year.
Fifty-three per cent of Toronto’s shootings this year have occurred within the six police divisions that would formally partner with the mothers under the proposed agreement, an area covering the west side of the city, including all of Etobicoke and the western portion of North York.
“They are an impressive group of passionate women who have been through a lot,” Hart said in an interview this week. “They deserve some change.”
But not everyone is on board with the partnership. The mothers have faced harassment and even death threats from community members who wrongly believe the women will be working as police informants.
Still, they’re resolved.
Ali Abddow’s eyes brim with tears as she speaks of her son Saed. “When your kid has died,” she says, “you’re not scared of anything.”The grief that galvanizes these mothers arose where they thought they were safest; most came here to escape a deadly Somali civil war that began in the 1980s. But after fleeing the violence, it found them here.
Co-founder Shamso Mohamoud’s life was upended on March 15, 2008, when a gunman fired into a crowd of young people outside an apartment building near Lawrence Avenue West and Dufferin Street. After the bullets stopped flying, five people lay injured and her son was dead.
Abdikarim Abdikarim was just 18. He was in Grade 12 at George Harvey Collegiate Institute and was enjoying March break. His mother remembers he was a joker — “my name’s so nice, my momma named me twice,” he liked to say.
The high-profile shooting led to calls for action. Then-mayor David Miller promoted a campaign for a national handgun ban, saying he’d met too many grieving mothers. His tenure had seen a spike in gun violence, including the “Year of the Gun” in 2005, when the city saw 53 fatal shootings.
An emotional Abdi Warsame, once a neighbour of Abdikarim’s family from back in Somalia, issued a warning at an event launching the campaign.
“You should listen to us,” he said. If we won’t do something about the gun, he said, Toronto “will become like Mogadishu.”
Abdikarim’s death made his mother want to escape. Once a busy personal support worker and a school bus driver, she stopped working and became depressed. She begged her two other sons not to leave the house. She relocated to Alberta, and briefly moved back to Somalia.
“I was running,” she says.
When she returned to Toronto in 2014, she found a community still grappling with violence, poverty and lack of opportunity. Gang activity and shootings in one area begot more of the same elsewhere.
“It was getting worse and worse and worse,” she says. “These kids didn’t know anything about war, but these kids were scared and they started to use guns too. They said nobody is doing anything so you have to defend yourself.”
Whether it was to the graveyard or jail, she says, parents who’d moved for a better life were losing their kids. Some were wondering, was is safer back in Somalia?
In 2015, Shamso Elmi found herself among the grieving. Her son Hussein Mohamud died in Vancouver just before his 25th birthday in a summertime killing she believes was racially motivated. No one has been convicted in his death.
The mother of seven arrived in Canada in 1987, and worked teaching life skills to fellow newcomers. Over the years, she’d met and helped other families dealing with the loss of a child to violence. Then she was among them.
“I didn’t want to go home and be depressed. I thought, ‘what can I do?’”
She connected with Mohamoud, and together the two women formed a peer-support network for mothers across the GTA and beyond who had lost a child to violence. The initiative, which they called Mother Outreach Workers, offered acute emotional support immediately after a death.