From Africa, with guns
They survived wars as kids, only to get caught up in the dangerous life of Winnipeg's gangs
NANCY MACDONALD | August 27, 2007 |
In the summer of 1992, after witnessing his father get killed by sniper fire in the war-ravaged city of Mogadishu, 11-year-old Hussein Jilaow fled his native Somalia for the U.S. with several members of his Marehan clan. He arrived at the Niagara Falls border crossing in September 1994 and was granted refugee status in Canada. He did not know the whereabouts of his mother or his five siblings. He settled in Winnipeg and enrolled at school, but he floundered, never quite fitting in. This summer, Jilaow, 26, was deported to Somalia, a country still wracked by a 16-year civil war. He'd racked up 13 convictions. "He carries concealed weapons. He attacks people with switchblades. His violence has escalated and there is every reason to believe it will continue to do so," wrote a federal judge.
He isn't the only Winnipegger with this story. Deportation hearings on grounds of serious criminality are scheduled for two Sudanese-born men, Mandela Kuet, 23, and Oboc Amon, 21, as well as a stateless 22-year-old refugee named Eliga Amon. And deportation orders have been issued on the same grounds to Gharib Abdullah, a 20-year-old Iraqi, and Shelk Kamara, a 25-year-old who came to Winnipeg from Sierra Leone as a teen, with bright hopes of getting an education; Kamara is now housed in Manitoba's Headingley Correctional Centre. All are known associates of the Mad Cowz street gang and its disaffected splinter gang, the African Mafia. Each fled the violence of war-ravaged homelands as boys, but became ensnared in Winnipeg's increasingly active gang world as young men.
Native gangs have existed in Winnipeg for years. But these days, parts of the city's broken-down core look more and more like Baltimore's, a violent downtown with a new breed of gangs joining older, Aboriginal ones. The Mad Cowz, who first appeared on police radar in 2004, distribute crack cocaine in the west end. Sometime after their loose formation in 2000, they began targeting and recruiting youth from Winnipeg's refugee and immigrant community. The African Mafia was formed in the summer of 2005. Its members came from countries such as Sudan and Somalia. Both gangs rely on displaced youth who have been exposed to a high degree of violence.
"These kids are used to using guns," says Lloyd Axworthy, president of the University of Winnipeg, located in the downtown core. "That's their life. That's their experience." Axworthy, Canada's foreign affairs minister from 1996 to 2000, is a noted advocate for war-affected children, and worries the country is accepting more and more refugees and immigrants without concern for the trauma and special circumstances some bring.
"If you come from Somalia, it's normal," says Muuxi Adam, 19, a refugee from Mogadishu who runs a pilot workshop for 60 immigrant youth at Manitoba Interfaith Welcome Place, a non-profit organization assisting refugees and newcomers. Adam, who is entering his second year at the University of Winnipeg, is helping to integrate new Winnipeggers, aged 16 to 21. This includes teaching them the intricacies of the legal system. They're things most Canadians take for granted -- the fact that some guns are illegal here, or that police act on behalf of the law. "At home, everything is corrupt," says Adam, adding that some refugee youth are scared of police and authority figures, because of traumatic early experiences with militias.
The city first confronted the ugly reality that violent gangs were making inroads into the vulnerable inner-city immigrant community after the October 2005 shooting death of 17-year-old Philippe Haiart, a graduate of Winnipeg's prestigious St. John's-Ravenscourt school. Haiart, the son of city surgeon Dr. Dominique Haiart, and a companion -- who was shot through the forearm -- took bullets aimed at two Mad Cowz members fleeing a boarded-up crack house on BMX bikes.
Shootings and stabbings are a matter of course in Winnipeg's disadvantaged core. But until Haiart's death, most victims of inner-city violence were gang members. Haiart was a bystander. He grew up in a middle-class suburb. His death dominated local news, call-in radio shows and coffee-shop talk. Citizens complained that youth violence had overrun the downtown; the chief of police fingered the courts for being soft on gangs; and conservative Mayor Sam Katz hastened to create a 45-person "in-your-face" police task force, Operation Clean Sweep, targeting street gangs. "If this happened to a native kid, there wouldn't have been the same reaction," says Haiart's girlfriend at the time, Isora Van Dreser, now 21.