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From refugee to immigration minister: Ahmed Hussen appointed cabinet role

By Michelle Zillo, Globe and Mail |

A former Somali refugee is now overseeing Canada’s federal immigration policies after a cabinet shuffle Tuesday.

Ahmed Hussen, who arrived in Canada as a refugee from Somalia at the age of 16, was sworn in as Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship at a Rideau Hall ceremony. He replaces John McCallum, who is leaving politics and heading to Beijing as Canada’s new envoy to China.

The rookie MP for the Toronto riding of York South-Weston is also the first Somali-Canadian to hold a seat in Parliament; his election made news across the world, including on BBC Africa and Al Jazeera.

Mr. Hussen, 40, arrived in Canada as a refugee in 1993 and settled in Toronto’s Regent Park community. While he is proud of his Somali heritage, he hopes to be more than the token Somali in the Liberal cabinet.

“As members of Parliament and members of the cabinet, each of us coming into public life are informed … by their different experiences that they bring to the table. And I’m no different in that sense. I’ll bring my experience as an immigrant to Canada, but also an immigration lawyer, someone who worked many, many years before running for office as a community activist, a community organizer and a community advocate,” Mr. Hussen told reporters on Parliament Hill Tuesday.

Mr. Hussen’s commitment to public service began after high school, when he began working for the Hamilton-Wentworth social-services department. He eventually returned to Toronto, where he completed an undergraduate degree in history at York University.

Returning to his roots, Mr. Hussen co-founded the Regent Park Community Council in 2002 and helped secure a $500-million revitalization project for the area.

His first foray into the political realm took place at the provincial level in Ontario, where he worked as an assistant to Dalton McGuinty, who was leader of the official opposition at the time. He followed Mr. McGuinty to the premier’s office after the Liberal win in 2003. Mr. McGuinty spoke highly of Mr. Hussen, describing him as a “natural leader.”

“He sees politics as public service and he is driven in large measure by a sense of indebtedness for the opportunity he found in Canada, his adoptive country. He’s just a great Canadian story. Canada welcomed him and now he will help us welcome others,” Mr. McGuinty said in an e-mail statement.

Mr. Hussen went on to attend the University of Ottawa’s law school and began practising in the areas of criminal defence, immigration, refugee and human-rights law. He continued to maintain links to his heritage as national president of the Canadian Somali Congress and, in that capacity, testified to the U.S. Homeland Security Committee on radicalization within the Canadian Somali community in 2011.

Mahamad Accord, who met Mr. Hussen eight years ago through their work with the Canadian Somali Congress, said Mr. Hussen was always bound for success.

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Who Inspires You?

What does success look like to you? Is it getting the job that you were hoping to get? Is it getting the salary that you’ve always dreamed of? Is it watching your children grow into confident people who will become the next thought leaders? Is it giving back to your community?

The Canadian Immigrant Magazine asks this question every year with their RBC Top 25 Immigrant Awards nomination request. They ask you to nominate individuals who have given inspiring contributions to Canada. They ask us to reflect on what makes an immigrant successful here.

Newcomers who move to here have already taken the biggest risk – leaving everything they know – in pursuit of a better future. Awards such as these show us the triumphs and tribulations of those who did not give up in the pursuit of their dreams. The stories that come with these awards provide us emotional connections to these experiences of others before us. They remind us that we can all participate in our own hero’s journey.

As Canada enters its 150th year, it is important to reflect that Canada is a country that was built by immigrants. Each person who moved here this country came in pursuit of a better life. Each success started with a dream. Each dream had its own hardships to be overcome. Each hardship was overcome with hard work, perseverance, and a steadfast movement towards their own goal.

Do you know someone who has inspired you? Someone you look to as an exemplar of success? Have they made inspiring contributions to their new country? Do they show potential as a long-term nation builder? Do others need to hear their story and learn from their journey? If so, please nominate them. Now more than ever we need to tell the story of the immigrants who continue to build this country and make it great.