Federal immigration and refugee minister Ahmed Hussen landed in Canada from Somalia 26 years ago and found his feet at Sir John A. Macdonald high school running on the track team. He returned to the school Friday for the first time since graduating.
It is not yet the end of the school year, and the tall and eloquent graduate with the big smile is not valedictorian, but Ahmed Hussen did create that kind of inspiring, bittersweet vibe at Sir John A. Macdonald high school.
It was 23 years ago that Hussen, a refugee of civil war in Somalia, last set foot in the school at York Boulevard and Bay Street North — “SJAM” as students and teachers call it.
He rose to become Canada’s Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship in 2017.
“The refugee became the minister of refugees,” he said in a speech in the auditorium that held the rapt attention of hundreds of students, even on a Friday afternoon with the sun shining outside.
He made it back to once more stride through the halls at SJAM just in time, because the school closes its doors for good in just over a month.
“This school is special, and the spirit is still here, it has not changed,” he told the students. “We will carry our experiences here forever and ever.”
The school in the core with a diverse student population has long been a place of fresh starts and dreams: “The school with a heart in the heart of the city,” said principal Barry Smith — himself a graduate.
Hussen, who is 42, began his Canadian odyssey at the school with an especially steep hill to climb.
He was born in 1976 in Mogadishu on the east coast of Africa, the youngest of six children.
In 1991, at the start of the civil war in Somalia, Hussen’s family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya.
In February 1993 his parents flew him, alone, to Canada, with nothing to his name but a duffel bag and a change of clothes.
He was 16 and lived with a cousin in Hamilton who was attending Mohawk College.
Hussen lived in social housing at 95 Hess St. and in the fall of 1993 began attending the school named after Canada’s most famous Scottish immigrant.
He loved soccer back home but had never been a runner. He joined SJAM’s track and cross-country teams.
He trained running trails near McMaster University, and pounding pavement downtown. He not only made the team but developed into a star.
As a high school sport, running is uniquely solitary yet team-oriented.
Hussen learned his limits — and that he could transcend them.
“Cross-country is not for the faint of heart, it makes you a tougher person,” Hussen told The Spectator. “As a young person, when you conquer it, you feel like you can achieve anything.”
The team was coached by a volunteer named Pete Wright, who was pastor at Hughson Street Baptist Church.
“Ahmed was probably invited to come out for the team, my impression was that he was trying to fit in,” said Wright. “And then we found out this guy could really run.”
Hussen bonded with teammates and found a sense of belonging, attending team dinners at Wright’s home.
“Ahmed had this way about him; a big friendly smile, a super guy. Everyone loved him.”
It was two years ago when Wright was watching the news on TV with his wife, Darlene, and the face of the newly appointed minister for refugees and immigration in Ottawa came on the screen.
Wright wondered if the Ahmed Hussen pictured was the same one they knew long ago.
“And then we saw him smile on the TV and Darlene said: ‘That’s him. That’s his smile.'”
He is the first person born in Africa to become a cabinet minister in Canada.
Hussen became a Canadian citizen in 2002, earned a degree in history from York University and a law degree from the University of Ottawa, before becoming politically active in Toronto and winning a seat in Parliament in 2015.
His memories of Hamilton remain fresh, including the downtown library where he spent many hours, like it was a second home.
“Hamilton, oh my, it was a formative time in my life. And Sir John A. had students from every corner of the world. I didn’t feel like ‘the other.'”
His father died in 2000. His mother, who fortuitously enrolled him in an English school in Somalia long ago, still lives in Kenya. He calls her frequently, and visited her in 2017.
In his speech, he recalled how he had never used a mailbox before he came to Canada, and carrying his wet laundry home from a laundromat because he was too shy to ask how to use the dryer.
He urged students to aim high, dream big — “dreams are free” — and he lauded Canada as a land of opportunity and tolerance.
He was received like a rock star afterwards for pictures and autographs.
One of the students who took a selfie with him was Khatima Abdul Ali, who is in Grade 12. She is graduating and bound for Mohawk College, and perhaps a career in biotechnology.
“His message, that newcomers like me don’t have to feel alone, that you can become something, there are opportunities to dream big — it means a lot,” she said. “Because that’s something I do every day, dream.”
She was born in Afghanistan, raised in Pakistan, and arrived in Canada “three years and seven days ago.”
Her eyes sparkled as she repeated the words she heard on stage from her fellow SJAM grad. She smiled a smile of hope — and optimism, and conviction.