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Ayan Omar's eyes fill with tears as she discusses the possible closure of an Edmonton program that has given her son a second chance after eight months in jail.

Ayan Omar’s eyes fill with tears as she discusses the possible closure of an Edmonton program that has given her son a second chance after eight months in jail.

Since 2014, the Step Up program has supported dozens of young incarcerated men and their families during their sentence and after their release.

But organizers from Alberta Somali Community Centre (ASCC) warn the project could soon be shut down without government funding.

“I just feel sad for the fact that families are going through what I have been going through,” said Omar, who spoke through an interpreter. “I’m worried … that they are not going to be able to receive the services they need.”

Since 2014, ASCC has assisted 49 clients by supporting them in jail and through the court process, as well as rehabilitation once they’re released. Twenty-two have not re-offended.

The group estimates their program could run on $200,000 annually. The cost of housing a single inmate is about $52,650 per year, in addition to legal and health expenses.

The Step Up program connects clients to lawyers, while ASCC staff often assist with bail plans. After their release, the men are connected to training, employment and housing, as well as services for addictions and mental health. 

According to Habiba Abdulle, ASCC executive director, those supports go a long way to ensuring her clients don’t go back to jail. 

Habiba Abdulle says the Step Up program helps prevent clients from re-offending. (CBC News)

Abdulle said serious offenders should not get off lightly but many clients who struggle with mental health and addictions end up behind bars for misdemeanours. And they often return to jail for breaching conditions that can be difficult to uphold, she said.

“For example, a homeless guy might have a condition to be home by 8 p.m.,” said Abdulle. “Well, where’s home when you’re on the streets?”

She has responded to emergencies in the middle of the night, such as finding someone a place to stay or removing them from a situation that could send them back to jail.

Participants are accepted into Step Up only after demonstrating their willingness to change and take responsibility.

“They have to report to us, we have to see how they’re doing in terms of employment,” said Dunia Nur, ASCC program manager. 

Each day around supper time her phone buzzes with calls from anxious inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre, asking if Step Up is being shut down. Nur also worries about whether 59 men on a waiting list will receive support.

“We’re afraid of how they might be left alone without supports, and the circle of being institutionalized, chronically accessing the system, and not figuring out what to do,” said Nur.

Until now, the program has been financed through community fundraisers and resources from other programs, forcing Nur and Abdulle to work long hours, often as volunteers. The organization has applied for grant money through Public Safety Canada. So far, requests for provincial funding have been unsuccessful.

Omar recalled her struggle to navigate the health and justice systems when her 22-year-old son first went to jail in 2016. But the Step-Up program helped her access legal information and her son, who was born in a refugee camp, was finally assessed and treated for mental illness.

“Because of the support he received, he has stayed out of trouble,” said Omar. “And he is now planning to go back to school and planning for his future.”

Nur said the project has also reduced stigma around incarceration and mental illness within her community, and started a much-needed conversation about the trauma of pre-migration, systemic racism and incarceration.

Part of that discussion takes place each Saturday among 15 mothers whose children are at risk. They meet in a support circle called Hooyas, which means “mother” in Somali.

Group member Maymuno Warsame said the program encouraged the women to open up about their emotions — a traditionally taboo topic they now realize is essential to their well-being.

“Every Saturday when we come together, we cry,” said Warsame. “Because one of the mothers will just ask one question and she ends up talking about all the things that she went through which nobody knows.”

She said some youths have ended up with criminal records because they didn’t have proper legal representation. But through Step Up, the mothers are educating themselves so they can advocate for their families and support Abdulle and Nur in their work.

“We have two ladies, just two ladies running around night and day to help and support (us),” said Warsame. “These mothers, they also want to help.”

Alberta Justice told CBC that officials would be willing to meet with ASCC to discuss funding opportunities. Public Service Canada said the ASCC will learn in December if its grant application is successful.

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