Sumaya Muhamed: Prayers for a say in her future
by Winluck Wong, PRUDE Inc. Living Library Project Coordinator
This article is part of PRUDE, Inc.’s “Living Library” project, featuring Saint John’s newcomers and the diverse stories they bring to the city. It is funded by ONB’s Multicultural Grants Program.
At 21 years old, Sumaya Muhamed is a whirlwind of energy. She holds down three jobs and finds time to volunteer in the community – all while attending school. Right after her graduation ceremony from Harbour View High School in June 2021, she had to rush off to speak at PRUDE’s “Stay and Grow” event. She gave her speech that evening, still wearing her graduation cap and gown.
Praying for a second chance
As far as Sumaya could remember, she was always moving around. When she was just five years old, war broke out in her birth country of Somalia. Under cover of darkness one night, her parents packed up the whole family in the car and fled for a Ugandan refugee camp.
She had to grow up fast. While both her parents worked all day to earn enough for food on the table, Sumaya took care of her younger siblings. She’d get them ready for school and then she’d stay home to look after the day’s chores.
“[When] they came back home…everything is cooked and cleaned,” Sumaya said. “They will teach me what…their teachers [showed] them. And my dad will help us to read; write. He was teacher, too.”
Sumaya also learned English on the side by watching Hollywood movies. She’d then practice her English by helping out as a youth translator for aid workers at the refugee camp.
It was tough growing up in Uganda.
Paycheques didn’t come on time and when they did, they were barely enough for the bills. Electricity kicked in between 7:00 PM and midnight so they’d only have that brief evening window to charge their phones. All that struggle under a constant, sweltering 45 degrees Celsius.
“I didn’t have the opportunity that I have right now – like to go to school and then come to work, you know?” Sumaya said.
Every day, she prayed for that opportunity. For a second chance.
It took 14 years for her prayers to be answered.
Sumaya’s family finally had the means to leave for a new country.
They had always wanted to move to U.S.A. But their dreams were dashed when the American government under Trump issued its controversial travel ban. In contrast, Canada doubled down on admitting new immigrants.
So with zero knowledge about what life in Canada is like, Sumaya’s entire family – her two parents and her eight siblings – set out once more to an unknown land.
Sumaya had no idea what to expect. Someone told her just before they left that Canada is famous for moose or something. That’s all she knew.
What she really didn’t expect though is how cold the weather is. “Oh, my God, I was freezing,” Sumaya said. “And they said, it’s kind of chilly, and I was like, it’s not a chill…It is very cold in here.”
It was March 2019 and they had just landed in Toronto. Although Sumaya immediately loved the excitement of the big city, her parents listened to the advice of others that a smaller town would be a better environment to raise a large family.
Someone else suggested Saint John. Without any hesitation, they headed there the next day.
It was difficult to fit in at first. For a while, Sumaya’s insecurity about her English level was almost debilitating. “I couldn’t even go to the shop…I was afraid like I might say something bad,” Sumaya said.
When she started school, Sumaya kept so quiet that no one even noticed the school bus wasn’t picking her up. She walked to and from school for a month before she timidly asked a teacher whether she’d be able to get on one of those yellow buses everyone else was taking. Shocked that Sumaya and her siblings had somehow slipped through the cracks, the teacher immediately got them set up on the school bus system.
From then on, Sumaya started speaking up more.
Day by day, she forced herself to work on her English. She started making friends at school and chatting with them. She even took up volunteering at the YMCA so she could interact with more people.
When talking to people, she follows a simple philosophy. “Be friendly with everybody,” Sumaya said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from, you know? We’re all from [a] different country. We’re here to learn and to get experience.”
As Sumaya got more comfortable with her new life, her confidence grew exponentially.
Her volunteering days at YMCA led to her first two jobs there – cleaning staff in November 2020 and child care program worker in September 2021. They even got her to sign up for the Skills Launch Youth Program, a job placement program that’s teaching her essential workplace skills. Meanwhile, she’s also working a third job at Kindred Home Care.
To Sumaya, YMCA is like a second family because they’ve been there for her this whole time. They have bolstered the support system Sumaya already has with her family – where she can always count on someone who would listen when she has a bad day.
Now, she finally feels safe enough to make plans for the future.
“What I asked myself when I got here was what do I want to be?” Sumaya said. “And then how can I be it?”
According to Sumaya, there are three paths her future can take: A) Chef; B) Nurse; or C) Early Childhood Educator.
She’s divided each plan into steps and is working on all of them at the same time. Whichever plan seems to move faster, she’ll go with that one.
At some point, she’d also like to travel. Maybe get behind the wheel of that Jeep she’s hoping to buy one day. And definitely explore the Toronto that she was so taken with when she first arrived in Canada.
But at the end of the day, she’ll always come back to the Saint John that she considers home now.
This is the town they’ve struggled their whole lives for. And in November 2021, it also became the town where her baby brother is born.
“We were thankful that day that we got here,” Sumaya said. “And my dad, he said that it’s a new country and new life…everybody should be good and work their best and be kind to one another. So that’s what we’re still doing.”
Winluck Wong is a freelance writer helping growing companies and organizations tell their story. He writes custom-crafted stories in business, sustainability, personal finance, and productivity. Follow his twips or visit his shop.