NATIONAL

FROM AFRICA, WITH GUNS

They survived wars as kids, only to get caught up in the dangerous life of Winnipeg’s gangs

NANCY MACDONALD August 27 2007
NATIONAL

FROM AFRICA, WITH GUNS

They survived wars as kids, only to get caught up in the dangerous life of Winnipeg’s gangs

NANCY MACDONALD August 27 2007

FROM AFRICA, WITH GUNS

NATIONAL

They survived wars as kids, only to get caught up in the dangerous life of Winnipeg’s gangs

NANCY MACDONALD

In the summer of 1992, after witnessing his father get killed by sniper fire in the war-ravaged city of Mogadishu, 11-year-old Hussein Jilaow fled his native Somalia for the U.S. with several members of his Marehan clan. He arrived at the Niagara Falls border crossing in September 1994 and was granted refugee status in Canada. He did not know the whereabouts of his mother or his five siblings. He settled in Winnipeg and enrolled at school, but he floundered, never quite fitting in. This summer, Jilaow, 26, was deported to Somalia, a country still wracked by a 16-year civil war. He’d racked up 13 convictions. “He carries concealed weapons. He attacks people with switchblades. His violence has escalated and there is every reason to believe it will continue to do so,” wrote a federal judge.

He isn’t the only Winnipegger with this story. Deportation hearings on grounds of serious criminality are scheduled for two Sudanese-born men, Mandela Kuet, 23, and Oboe Amon, 21, as well as a stateless 22-yearold refugee named Eliga Amon. And deportation orders have been issued on the same grounds to Gharib Abdullah, a 20-year-old Iraqi, and Sheik Kamara, a 25-year-old who came to Winnipeg from Sierra Leone as a teen, with bright hopes of getting an education; Kamara is now housed in Manitoba’s Headingley Correctional Centre. All are known associates of the Mad Cowz street gang and its disaffected splinter gang, the African Mafia. Each fled the violence of warravaged homelands as boys, but became ensnared in Winnipeg’s increasingly active gang world as young men.

Native gangs have existed in Winnipeg for years. But these days, parts of the city’s broken-down core look more and more like Baltimore’s, a violent downtown with a new breed of gangs joining older, Aboriginal ones. The Mad Cowz, who first appeared on police radar in 2004, distribute crack cocaine in the west end. Sometime after their loose formation in 2000, they began targeting and recruiting youth from Winnipeg’s refugee and immigrant community. The African

Mafia was formed in the summer of 2005. Its members came from countries such as Sudan and Somalia. Both gangs rely on displaced youth who have been exposed to a high degree of violence.

“These kids are used to using guns,” says Lloyd Axworthy, president of the University of Winnipeg, located in the downtown core. “That’s their life. That’s their experience.” Axworthy, Canada’s foreign affairs minister from 1996 to 2000, is a noted advocate for war-affected children, and worries the country is accepting more and more refugees and immigrants without concern for the trauma and special circumstances some bring.

“If you come from Somalia, it’s normal,” says Muuxi Adam, 19, a refugee from Mogadishu who runs a pilot workshop for 60 immigrant youth at Manitoba Interfaith Welcome Place, a non-profit organization assisting refugees and newcomers. Adam, who is entering his second year at the University of Winnipeg, is helping to integrate new Winnipeggers, aged 16 to 21. This includes teaching them the intricacies of the legal system. They’re things most Canadians take for granted—the fact that some guns are illegal here, or that police act on behalf of the law. “At home, everything is corrupt,” says Adam, adding that some refugee youth are scared of police and authority figures, because of traumatic early experiences with militias.

The city first confronted the ugly reality that violent gangs were making inroads into the vulnerable inner-city immigrant community after the October 2005 shooting death of 17-year-old Philippe Haiart, a graduate of Winnipeg’s prestigious St. John’s-Ravenscourt school. Haiart, the son of city surgeon Dr. Dominique Haiart, and a companion—who was shot through the forearm—took bullets aimed at two Mad Cowz members fleeing a boarded-up crack house on BMX bikes.

Shootings and stabbings are a matter of course in Winnipeg’s disadvantaged core. But until Haiart’s death, most victims of innercity violence were gang members. Haiart was a bystander. He grew up in a middle-class suburb. His death dominated local news, callin radio shows and coffee-shop talk. Citizens complained that youth violence had overrun the downtown; the chief of police fingered the courts for being soft on gangs; and conservative Mayor Sam Katz hastened to create a 45-person “in-your-face” police task force,

Operation Clean Sweep, targeting street gangs. “If this happened to a native kid, there wouldn’t have been the same reaction,” says Haiart’s girlfriend at the time, Isora Van Dreser, now 21.

But the real warning signs, at least within the city’s African community, had come a year earlier, with the shooting death of 14-year-old Sirak “Shaggy” Okbazion. Shaggy fled troubled Eritrea with his parents when he was 6, and moved to Canada at age 10. Four years later he was selling cocaine for the Mad Cowz. In August 2004, he was shot three times through the chest outside a crack house. At the time of his death, the Okbazions, who could not speak English, said they were unable to control their son’s behaviour: he had begun associating with the Mad Cowz and stopped coming home at night. He was the victim of a high-stakes war with B-Side, a more established Aboriginal gang.

His death set in motion a chain of events that would result in Haiart’s shooting death, one year later. Infighting among the Mad Cowz

over avenging Shaggy’s murder led to an acrimonious split; soon Winnipeg police observed young men—members of the newly formed African Mafia—wearing black hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogan “F-K MAD COW” Tension begat violence in 2005 as the new street rivals fought for control of the drug trade in a corner of the west end.

On the night of his death, an unsuspecting Haiart walked directly into the line of fire.

“It’s a predatory world,” says Jordan Marshall, a former high-ranking member of the Mad Cowz, who left the gang and is currently in a corrections facility. (His name has been altered to protect his identity.) Marshall says his gang used to recruit 16-year-olds. Now they start them at 13 and sometimes as young as 10 or 11, training a new generation of baby crack runners.

This descent into the madness of gang vio-

fWE WATCH THEM/ SAYS A FORMER GANG MEMBER. ‘WE HAVE FANCY CARS. WE SELL THEM DREAMS.5

lence is incomprehensible to parents of immigrant and refugee youth, says Jim Silver, chair of the politics department at the University of Winnipeg, whose research focuses on urban issues. They thought they had brought their kids to safety and freedom. They landed instead in the west end. Once home to Winnipeg’s elite, who built spectacular homes and apartment buildings, the area has in recent years become the site of a viciously racialized poverty that traps disoriented newcomers. Many survive on part-time work with few benefits; a majority live in poverty.

Their children, meanwhile—some of whom have spent years in refugee camps, cutting short their education—are thrown into school according to their age. But a 12-year-old assigned to a Grade 7 classroom may not have acquired the skills to write a term paper or deliver a presentation. He may not know how to speak English, let alone read it. “I was so lonely,” says Adam, of his first months at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate. He arrived in Winnipeg

alone at age 16. Armed gunmen had attacked his home in Mogadishu, killing his stepfather, who raised him. In class it once took him an entire day to work up the courage to ask a question—then he clammed up as soon the other kids turned to watch him.

“Before I left Africa I felt like I knew everything. But when I came to Canada I felt like I knew nothing,” says Michael Mayen, a recent graduate of the U of W, and among the city’s 200 Lost Boys of Sudan—the 30,000 to 40,000 Sudanese children orphaned by civil war. Unaccompanied by adults, they crossed the Sudan to get to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, fending off attacks by animals and insurgents. Mayen, who lost three cousins over his four-month, l,600-km trek, survived one attack by hiding among the bodies of his massacred friends. Still, he knew how to survive Africa alone at 13. Canada was another matter.

That is the reason the African Mafia started, says Marshall. “It was African boys sticking together.” It wasn’t about race, he argues. They just wanted to be around someone who’s been through what they’ve been through. “They’re told, ‘You’re going to move to Winnipeg. You’re going to go to school and have a future,’ ” he says. “But they move to the west side, to Central Park. They barely speak English. There’s nothing they can relate to. They walk around like little zombies. It’s only a matter of time before they get drawn in. They start out good, at schools like Gordon Bell. But there’s nowhere for them to go after school.” And the gangs know that, he adds. “We watch them. Once it looks like they’re ready, we go to them. We have big, fancy cars and chains: we sell them dreams.”

Right now, the Mad Cowz and African Mafia are in disarray; like Marshall, much of the leadership is behind bars. But one day, the young dealers will climb to the top. “This is never going to be okay. This is never going to end,” Marshall says. He once watched some neighbourhood kids; instead of cops and robbers they were playing B-Side and Mad Cowz, hiding behind couches and hitting each other with sticks. “I remember thinking: this is so messed up. Their future is etched in stone.”

Some do fight for change. The Needs Centre for War Affected Families runs an after-school gang-prevention program called ROUTE for at-risk youth, many from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Brief profiles highlight the risks: “Oldest brother in jail for drug dealing, second-oldest brother associates with African Mafia”; “17year-old brother lives on the street and is an African Mafia drug dealer.” In her off-hours, program director Gaylene Dempsey visits their siblings in jail, attends court dates with their mothers and drives them to job interviews. But for any child she might save from the pull of area gangs, she remains haunted by her biggest defeat: a sweet but troubled Ethiopian boy from a deeply dysfunctional west end family. Dempsey remembers visiting the boy’s home and sensing his family was drowning in despair. After he started dropping by the centre, she noticed their stock of popcorn kept going missing. She realized he was taking it. The boy is 15 now, and Dempsey sees him from time to time on gang turf. He is selling and using, and sleeping in the hallways of area apartment buildings. He tells her “the guys” are feeding him. She says he looks like hell. M