Ahmed Tohow has the extraordinary ability to bridge the chasm between two cultures encouraging understanding and mutual respect. Having come to Australia ten years ago as a Somali refugee Ahmed has a spectrum of experience to draw upon. He recounts his own childhood and the freedom with which he moved from place to place. To a degree he despairs at the difficulty of raising his own children inMelbourne’s suburbs. Like many parents Ahmed is forced to recognise that his children are growing up in a vastly different world to that which he did. Working to build an integrated community Ahmed is affecting change from within.
This journalist will happily admit to having a bit of a chuckle listening back to our interview and hearing Ahmed’s offhand comment that parents in Somalia had far less to worry about- “only wild animals” different to Australia where “you have to have a parent or guardian with your children at all times”. For Ahmed and his wife, this new world presented challenges at first as the rest of his family remained overseas.
To the credit of Ahmed’s own upbringing his mother’s encouragement to give and to help has stirred in him a spirit of volunteerism. The establishment of Dugsi is just one demonstration of his work to build a stronger community. Dugsi is the product of lengthy observation of the challenges that were facing Somali youth attending Olympic Village Primary School. Dugsi is the Somali language word for school and is a volunteer run homework club for kids in the area. Without the immense support of Olympic Village Primary School these programs would not likely operate and it is crucial that their contribution be acknowledged.
Language barriers and lacking confidence were two difficulties that Ahmed noticed were impeding his own son and some of the other children from participating at school. Alongside studying Ahmed chose to spend time at the school helping out. Ahmed was then invited to step up to the role of Multicultural Liason Officer- working to bridge the gap between teachers and the parental community.
The origins of Dugsi brings to mind that old saying that ‘from little things big things grow’. Humble beginnings have since grown to attract up to150 students from prep to year 12. Initially 2-3 volunteers ran Iqra ,a Saturday class to encourage reading and help Somali students to learn and practice Arabic.
The greatest breakthrough for the program has been the fostering of trust in the parent community. As Ahmed puts it much cultural misunderstanding between the school and parents can be broken down if the “hearts and minds” of the Somali community are won. This must be done, he suggests, through fostering “trust and respect”.
Trust is one of the core elements of any community and a tool for bridging the gap between the Somali community- that Ahmed calls an “invisible community”- and the greater Banyule community. The issues at hand are complex. Resettlement and the negotiation of two very different cultures present great challenges for migrant groups of East Africa.
Problems at home are not far from Ahmed’s thoughts either- provoked by an SBS news report the night prior to our interview he speaks of how “disheartening” it is to hear of the ravages of drought and famine over East Africa. He speaks too of his efforts to rally interest from local media to fundraise for this cause.
Ask Ahmed about the future of the young people that come through Dugsi and Iqra and you will be met with a mixed response. On the one hand he has high hopes for young Somalis, “a lot of the young women” he says “are educated and doing really well”. On the other hand Ahmed is pragmatic and speaks of the mentoring support that is needed to raise the potential of the young men and women to take full advantage of educational opportunities.
In Ahmed’s exceptional hands a simple idea has grown to be a model for success. Dugsi has succeeded in engaging and empowering not just young Somalis but also parents and community leaders. Similarly, Ahmed’s message is a simple one. If we can collectively take steps to uncover the hidden groups in our community and extend a welcoming hand then positive partnerships will form. If Council and Banyule residents- young and old- work collaboratively then ultimately the future looks bright.
Words By: Anna Carrig
Photos by: Sean Porter
© Sean Porter 2011