Somali centre stays open despite cash woes

By Halima Mautbur

Public support is keeping the door to a Somali community centre at Isabella and Bank streets open after insufficient city funding threatened to shut it for good.

“Citizens call us saying how much you need, we will come up with the money,” says executive director Raage Mohamed, .

“And we have students saying they will rotate (shifts) and keep the office open.”

The Somali Centre for Youth, Women and Community Development currently helps about 90 families deal with immigration matters and the search for low-income housing. It also helps about 55 youth receive counselling and find volunteer placements and jobs.

The mainly volunteer-run centre receives $56,000 annually from the city, but Mohamed says this isn’t enough to pay rent, operational costs and the salary of its only employee — Mohamed.

But he says the community has offered “overwhelming support” after the funding crisis was announced. The centre is staying open for now, but he says he’s still waiting to see if the city will increase the funding.

However, Coun. Alex Cullen says the funding isn’t likely to be increased because of “managerial problems” that resulted in a debt for which Revenue Canada garnished $16,000 in back taxes last year.

Cullen says the funding should instead be given to other organizations targeting the same community needs.

Mohamed says the debt began in 1997, a year after the centre was first opened, because no one knew they had to pay Revenue Canada. The centre hasn’t yet been able to pay off the debt.

“It’s not something that Alex Cullen could appreciate, coming to Canada and functioning as everybody else. It’s like expecting an infant who was born yesterday to walk the next day,” Mohamed says.

He accuses Cullen of “taking the centre for granted” and says the interest on the debt is being addressed. He explains that Revenue Canada has contacted both the city and the centre about applying for a review.

Yolande Cremer is the city’s manager of community funding. She says the city, the Somali Centre and one of its partner community centres will write a joint letter requesting the review, which they have been told has “a good chance of being approved.”

Still, Cremer cautions that the current budget shortfall means the city can’t promise any funding until the budget is finalized in March.

But others in the community say the centre is too important to lose. Rick Malloch, executive director of the Ottawa Centre for Crime Prevention, calls the centre a “valuable resource.”

Youth violence last summer resulted in Mayor Bob Chiarelli convening an unofficial task force, which has consulted the centre about issues facing Somali youth and will release results in the coming weeks.

Siham Abdillahi also thinks the centre should stay. She says she’s come to the centre to ask for help gaining job experience because no one will hire her.

She says many in the Somali community would suffer without the centre’s advocacy and support.

Ottawa has one other Somali community centre, on Bank Street in the city’s south end. But Mohamed says it would be overwhelmed if it was the only one in operation.

Quoting a Somali proverb, Mohamed says: “If people get together, they can mend a crack in the sky.”