From refugee to firefighter

Somali Canadian builds community through hope

By Maureen Fitzhenry

Tags for From refugee to firefighter

A smiling man stands in front of a fire truck.

Photo: CMHR, Rob Vincent

Story text

Ali Duale knows what it’s like to be deprived of a community. In 1991, he and his wife fled a brutal civil war in Somalia, ending up in a Kenyan refugee camp where they spent seven years and had three children. After an ordeal he chooses to describe only as “a long process,” the family was eventually accepted into Canada as refugees.

As his plane circled Halifax for that first landing, he looked down and could see only the snow. And it warmed his heart.

“It’s very hard to describe being a refugee and being nobody,” he says. “I remember being at a refugee camp and not having any documents or any ID or any belongings. I remember being nobody. And then becoming somebody.”

Video: Our Canada, My Story: Ali Duale

Ali worked hard to become a City of Halifax firefighter, a job he has held since 2004 – including a two‐year role as the fire department’s Diversity and Community Liaison Officer. Now a father of eight, he also coaches basketball and acts as an informal resource for new Canadians.

He has definitely become a “somebody” in his community: an advocate and organizer who helped build a swimming pool, a mosque and a community centre that also serves as a sports hub for kids and a gathering place for newcomers.

This country has given me a second chance in life. It is my intention to give back.

Ali Duale

During the 2020 COVID‐19 pandemic – often after a long night shift as a City of Halifax firefighter and first responder – Ali regularly loads donated groceries into his car and delivers them to a half‐dozen neighbourhood families in need.

A man stands next to a young woman wearing a headscarf.

Ali with his youngest daughter.

Photo: CMHR, Rob Vincent

The pandemic not only expanded his role in the community, it helped him forge new bonds with his own family as well. Being socially isolated in a house with six children (two are grown and living in Ontario and Prince Edward Island), two grandchildren and his wife, has been a revelation.

“It is so much better than I expected,” he says. “We’ve become closer than ever before. We have more time to talk together and laugh and understand each other better. So this has been a positive thing in that way, and it made me realize how much time I took away from my family, especially with my involvement with community issues which means being away from home.”

He also became a home‐school teacher and buddy to his two youngest boys, spending time playing in the wild area behind their home. Thankfully, the pandemic made his firefighter shifts a little easier as accidents and fires significantly decreased with people staying at home. And for that he is grateful.

A man stands in a basketball court holding two basketballs.

Ali coaches basketball and helped get a new community centre built.

Photo: CMHR, Rob Vincent

He points to the importance and power of community in how Nova Scotia responded to another trauma in 2020, when a shooter disguised as a Mountie ended the lives of 22 people.

“This had a huge impact for everyone in this province. This place is known as being peaceful and quiet and this incident has made people think of Nova Scotia in a different way. It was so sad to see that many people lost their lives for no reason. The whole province is grieving.”

“But I’ve seen some very positive things. In my neighbourhood, every second house has a Nova Scotia flag or a splash of blue. That makes me feel good – the beauty of when we come together and stand together as a community.”

This mutual support and belonging matters most to Ali. It’s what he works to create every day. It’s why his story was featured in an exhibition at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights called Our Canada, My Story, which ran during 2017 for Canada 150, featuring seven remarkable Canadians working to overcome diverse human rights challenges.

A museum display incorporating large portraits of diverse people, video screens and comfortable seating.

The exhibition Our Canada, My Story ran at the Museum in 2017.

Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

In the video produced for that exhibition, Ali tries to explain: “Community is important to me because that’s the foundation of society. I’m very proud of being a Muslim and of being Canadian. This is the beauty of this country… we’re very multicultural, a very diverse community. Being Canadian is being who you are – there’s no contradiction…. This was my destiny – to give back to this community and to this country.”

A man wearing a brightly coloured track suit and a white skullcap sits on some rocks, with boats and a harbour in the background.

Ali is proud to be a Muslim and part of the Halifax community.

Photo: CMHR, Rob Vincent

If there has been racism and hardship in Canada for a Black Muslim newcomer from Africa, it’s not something that you’ll hear from Ali. He’d rather focus on the good.

Like receiving a personal phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 to thank him after his story gained national attention from media coverage of the Our Canada, My Story exhibition. Ali has since spoken to the Prime Minister twice more at public events.

Like attending the unveiling of the new $10 bill featuring Black Nova Scotian human rights defender Viola Desmond on one side and the Museum on the other – an invitation he received from the Bank of Canada.

Like hearing the outdoor call to sunset prayer during Ramadan for the very first time since he’s arrived in Canada. The City of Halifax permitted the call to be broadcast in the spring of 2020 because Muslims could not gather during the COVID‐19 pandemic. It’s a practice that Ali hopes will continue.

“This is a thing I could never have imagined, that this could happen here. It makes me feel so good.”

But for Ali, it’s all part of a natural process. To him, it’s the inevitable result of putting hope and human rights into action.

“I cherish action. The action creates conversation, the conversation creates understanding and the understanding creates harmony. I’m always optimistic that the outcomes will be positive.”

Being Canadian is being who you are – there’s no contradiction.

Ali Duale

Ask yourself:

  • What are my attitudes towards newcomers in Canada?

  • How can helping my community promote human rights in the world?

  • How can I help make a difference in my community during difficult times?