Early Tuesday morning, Toronto teacher Abshir Hassan was shot near his apartment; he was out to move his car and avoid a parking ticket. Police say it was a case of mistaken identity—a hit gone wrong. His friend Rima Berns-McGown wrote this tribute to Hassan, and raises some important questions about the assumptions we can bring to such situations—focusing on the neighbourhood where a shooting took place or the racial identity of its victims—and how we can do better at responding to them.
I am so heartbroken. A few months ago I received an email from a young man whom I didn’t know, but who had read my work. He was working on a research project of his own, and he wanted to know if I would be willing to meet with him to talk it over. We had friends in common. We had a warm email exchange and we met in person in May. He was one of the young, brilliant, critical thinkers—a second-generation Somali youth—who are now doing smart research that is both enlightening and beginning to make enormous change. We had a short but powerful conversation and I was so excited to have met him, and was looking forward to a lifetime of conversations about getting to social justice, and activist research.
Abshir Hassan died Monday night, gunned down at close range in Lawrence Heights.
He was a good, caring person: a teacher and a student, working hard to fix everything that needs to be fixed.
If there is any part of you that thinks all Somali youth who get shot are gang- or drug-involved, send that part packing—now.
Please understand that the conditions that have created a world in which someone like Abshir Hassan is murdered are conditions that we have all helped to create, and that we all need to play a part in fixing—especially if you are an employer, a journalist, a teacher, a policeman, or a politician. Especially if you are white and have power or influence of any kind.
Please try to understand what racist power structures do to young black men, and how even the ones who have done everything they were supposed to do—who have followed all the rules, who have been successful—are still not safe.
Please honour Abshir’s memory by digging deeper, thinking more, and making your mind up to push against the grain wherever you can. Hire a Somali teen. Challenge the police to stop carding. Refuse to buy into racist, sensationalist journalism. Don’t buy the Rob and Doug Ford tripe.
Understand that resilient young Somali men and women will change their world and ours for the better. They could use your support, and they don’t deserve your ignorance.
Abshir Hassan, rest in peace, rest in power.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ
Rima Berns-McGown is a professor of diaspora studies at the University of Toronto and the past president of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.