How this 18-year-old is fostering multiculturalism in Thunder Bay

TVO.org speaks with Yamaan Alsumadi about positive conversations — and why she hosts opens houses at the city’s only mosque
By Jon Thompson - Published on Nov 13, 2019
Yamaan Alsumadi, who recently received an award for her work promoting multiculturalism in the region, has lived in Thunder Bay since 2015. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — Yamaan Alsumadi was born in Jordan and has lived in England, Quebec, and Ottawa — but the 18-year-old calls Thunder Bay, where she's lived since 2015, "the most beautiful place so far."

Last week, Thunder Bay mayor Bill Mauro presented Alsumadi with the Young Leader award, one of six Mayor’s Community Safety Awards, for her work promoting multiculturalism in the region. In a press release, the municipality says that she “helped youth build resiliency skills, positive identity, and self-esteem to motivate change in their lives and the lives of others.”

Alsumadi, who from 2016 until this summer served as the co-president of the Regional Multicultural Youth Council, helped launch its Thunder Bay We Want initiative, which facilitates conversations on race, reconciliation, and safe schools and neighbourhoods. She also hosted a 200-student conference called Coming Together to Talk, based on a locally produced film about the challenges facing Indigenous youth. A student in Lakehead University’s nursing program, she hosts open houses at Thunder Bay’s only mosque and coordinates film screenings that feature discussions of such issues as colonialism and race.

TVO.org spoke with Alsumadi about the award, the importance of positive conversation, and why she doesn’t use the term “anti-racism.”

How did it feel to learn you’d won this award?

I’m very happy, for sure. A lot of responsibility has been put on me right now, which is great. I love the fact that the work I was doing got recognition. I’m very humbled by it, but the award is not about Yamaan Alsumadi. I want people to ask what Yamaan Alsumadi is working for — and let’s talk about that.

So what are you working on?

I really liked the work I did with the Regional Multicultural Youth Council, working with youth to stay in school and be safe in Thunder Bay. We would usually talk to students that come from different reserves to DFC [the all-Indigenous Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School], and we’d help integrate them to a new city. People don’t realize if you come from Canada to Canada there’s culture shock.

As a non-Indigenous person, I want to hear from them the experiences they’re having. It made me want to advocate — tell people what they’re going through and try to find ways to help.

There’s a sense they don’t belong. A lot of my friends who went to public school ended up going to DFC just because they didn’t feel included in public schools. They don’t feel they’re wanted in the community, and the problem is, they don’t feel like they can do anything about it.

You’ve said you don’t think of your work as “anti-racism.” Why?

I try to keep it positive. Racism is negative, but I try to talk more about multiculturalism than anti-racism because it’s better to be positive. When you say “anti-something,” you’re saying something is against something else. When you say “racism,” you think division. You think problems between two groups. You think of these lines that are drawn between us. But when you say “multiculturalism,” that’s something everyone can agree on and likes to talk about.

If they’re not smiling, I feel like I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.

Thunder Bay is infamous across Canada for the racism Indigenous people face. Have you ever experienced racism in the city?

I’m not going to say no. A lot of the racism I face personally is the way the media represents Muslims. I don’t face it person-on-person. A lot of people in Thunder Bay do face one-on-one racism, where somebody would yell out something terrible or face a physical act that is bad.

I think what makes Thunder Bay different is that it’s very isolated. There’s a deep-rooted culture here with being strongly held to your culture. In comparison to Ottawa, where I used to live, there’s not much openness and diversity. So the only representation of who I am is external from the media.

Do you ever feel as if you’re expected to speak on behalf of all Muslims?

I’m always expected to speak for all Muslims. In every situation, whatever I do represents my whole culture, which is unfair. Anytime my dad and I would go to the store — I love my dad, but I laugh extra hard at his jokes when I’m in public because I’m like, ‘Hey guys. My dad is hilarious and I’m laughing with him because we have a good connection. No oppression here, or whatever they say is going on.’

Why did you decide to host events at the mosque?

Open House at the Mosque is a way to integrate with the kind of people we really are, not the kinds of people the media represents. People can come who don’t usually interact with Muslims and don’t have the ability to ask.

The thing I find here is that people are afraid to ask because they’re afraid to offend “the other.” They don’t want to get into these conversations. They won’t understand that person’s perspective, because the only view they have is from the media. That’s why I encourage events. I’d rather you come and ask and offend me than have you not ask and have that idea in your mind.

Same with the film screenings and conference, then?

A lot of students don’t know what a lot of people go through. It was great seeing how willing they were to learn about their fellow Canadian citizens who are living in the same country but experiencing it differently. And so it was really something that put a sense of perspective that maybe we should have more of a conversation at school and not just at different events, because, unless you came to that conference, not knowing about racism, you wouldn’t have learned about it.

But people are open to learning more about the issues Thunder Bay faces. There are a lot of unanswered questions. If I had a question about where racism is happening in Thunder Bay, I don’t even know who I would ask. It’s very difficult to find this type of information and how you can help with it unless you put the work of finding the right people or talking to [Indigenous] people themselves about what they’re facing.

Is your nursing education a continuation or a departure from the multiculturalism work you’ve been doing?

For my whole life, I’ve wanted to create change. Everybody wants to create significance in people’s lives. I want to take care of people emotionally, but I also want to take care of people physically. I’ve always loved biology and human anatomy. I come from a health-care family.

But, especially in the health field, there are ethical issues that have to do with multicultural diversity. I want to wear the hat of being a Muslim woman nurse in Canada facing these issues because, as much as we want to say that we don’t see colour, at the end of the day, we do. Everybody’s different and has their unique appearances, but, as much as I don’t want you to see me just as a Muslim woman, that’s the first thing you’re going to see. I want to represent the person I am and the person I can be as to what Muslims are actually like — and maybe become that person I wish I saw in the media.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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