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 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.
“He’s a natural. He’s an advocate for human rights. He’s a warm-hearted person,” Mr. Accord told The Globe and Mail. “His personality is exceptional, but at the same time his experience, it shows.”
Mr. Hussen comes into his new role amidst growing anti-immigrant sentiments south of the border, as U.S. president-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office next week. Ruby Latif, a long-time friend of Mr. Hussen who worked with him at Queen’s Park, said Mr. Hussen is exactly who Canada needs as immigration minister at this time.
“The portfolio really needs somebody who understands what’s happening to vulnerable people in vulnerable communities, especially with what’s happening across the border,” Ms. Latif said. “Somebody like Ahmed understands the issues of immigrants, visible minorities.”
Mr. Hussen, a father of two boys, is fluent in English, Somali and Swahili.