When Masad Yusuf left war-torn Somalia in 1981 for a better life in Canada, little did the then-teenager know he would end up devoting his life’s work to helping thousands of other people just like him, arriving as scared refugees, not knowing a word of English.
“We have to teach them the simplest things, like what a traffic light is or how to turn on a tap,” he says of facilitating their integration into Canadian society.
A soft-spoken man with a heartwarming smile, today, Yusuf is the executive director of Toronto’s Midaynta Community Services, a non-profit organization providing settlement and support services — such as housing and job training — to refugees and immigrants, the majority of whom are Somali.
When an influx of Somali refugees began arriving in Toronto in the late 1980s, Canadian immigration approached Yusuf, who by then had mastered English and was a Ryerson student, to provide translation services. Over the next few years, he had more and more such requests to help with landing and citizenship forms at all hours.
“You have a mother and her kids saying ‘we have a hearing with immigration tomorrow and we need you to help us.’ You can’t say no,” says Yusuf.
As the ’90s arrived and civil war broke out in Somalia, Yusuf helped set up nine Somali agencies throughout the GTA, eventually landing at Midaynta, where, today he is integral to helping newcomers cope with the bureaucratic requirements of citizenship.
“The need in the Somali community is so huge,” he says. “Trust is a big issue. This is a community that’s been going through civil war. We say that trust is like a piece of hair. You cut it, it’s hard to put back together.”
Currently, Yusuf is trying to unite all the Somali community services under one entity to strengthen their effectiveness as a whole.
As a result of his nearly 20 years of commitment to helping newcomers to Canada, Yusuf was recently named a Vital Person for 2009 by the Toronto Community Foundation, and tomorrow morning he will be awarded a $5,000 grant which he plans to use for leadership training courses at York University and the University of Toronto.
“With this work, you sometimes feel like nobody acknowledges you. I’m honoured to be acknowledged like this,” he says of the grant.