Somali-Canadians in Ottawa rattled 1 month after fatal wedding shooting

When someone yelled “Gunshots!” in the middle of celebrations for the newly-married bride and groom, Fowsia Hussein had a difficult choice to make.

Should she duck under her table? Run and save herself? Or should she join her 16-year-old daughter in the women’s washroom?

She didn’t know where the bullets were coming from.

“I made the decision to go and find my child,” she said.

Hussein, a member of Ottawa’s Somali community, was one of more than 200 people at the Sept. 2 reception at the Infinity Convention Centre south of Ottawa’s core.

She and her daughter ended up not being among the eight people wounded amid a hail of bullets fired outside the convention centre that night.

Two of those victims, both from the Toronto area, died: 26-year-old Said Mohamed Ali and 29-year-old Abdishakur Abdi-Dahir.

Hussein and her daughter huddled in a bathroom stall for 45 minutes. At one point someone wounded walked in —  she didn’t know if they were a victim or the shooter.

Eventually they emerged, walking past the parts of the bathroom floor that were sticky with blood, and escaped to the parking lot.

One month later, Hussein said she remains scared of attending large events.

“The suspects are not caught yet. We don’t know who [was] the target,” she said. “We have very limited information to reassure us.”

A traumatizing night

Hussein is one of a number of local Somali residents who told CBC that last month’s shooting has cast a traumatizing shadow over the community and that they’re concerned about the pace of the Ottawa Police Service investigation.

While they’re relieved officers responded quickly to the scene — from which the suspected shooter fled — they say they’re disappointed with the police response in the weeks since.

“I don’t think the police [are] saying what they know, and maybe rightfully so to protect their investigation. I give them the benefit of the doubt,” Hussein said.

“But as a citizen, I feel they could do more.”

Another local Somali resident, Wali Farah, said his wife and two twentysomething daughters — close relatives of the bride — were at the reception.

They hid in a closet after the attack, he said.

“We really are very devastated. We are very sad and we are really concerned that so far no one [has been] arrested for this incident, and we blame the police for this,” Farah said.

“Me and my wife, everyone, we’re [wondering], ‘How are we going to go to the next wedding?'”

With many Black Muslims attending the event — including young people not previously exposed to gun violence — some guests initially worried the attack was a hate crime, said Abdirizak Mohamud, a member of a local Somali parent support group.

“A lot of the older people who were there are people who have experienced a lot of trauma in their life in the past. So that brings back a lot of terrible memories,” he said.

That was the case for Asha Ahmed.

Ahmed wasn’t at the wedding, but said that when she heard about what happened she flashed back to 2015. That was when her 21-year-old son, Sharif Said, was fatally shot.

It’s been very hard to watch the lack of progress on the wedding shooting, Ahmed said, but at the same time “we have to learn how to work with the police, and police must learn how they’re going to work [with the] community.”

“I think that’s the conversation that’s missing,” she said.

Police said early on there was no evidence to suggest the shooting was a hate crime. They did say it was targeted, though neither Ali nor Abdi-Dahir were the targets.

They haven’t said who was the target, or which of the two weddings happening at the convention centre they were attending.

Police Chief Eric Stubbs told CTV Sept. 3 that when the force had a suspect description, they would release it publicly. No sketch has been released.

Felt like victim blaming

Some of the statements local officials have made in the weeks since have touched a nerve among Somali community members, said Mohamud, particularly those who feel “overpoliced but underprotected.”

The last major update from OPS was Sept. 6, when Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson said officers were working around the clock, combing over video, connecting with the Toronto Police Service and “looking at all angles and evidence.”

But she added that many people present at the convention centre weren’t coming forward or had more information than they initially shared with police.

Then, at an Ottawa Police Services Board meeting on Sept. 25, Stubbs said investigators continued to pursue leads but were “struggling as we see a lack of co-operation from some of the attendees and those who were present.”

To Farah and Mohamud, that sounded like victim blaming.

“I’m sure there are many reasons that cases like this would take time to be resolved,” Mohamud said.

Farah Aw-Osman, who also had loved ones at the wedding, called the alleged lack of co-operation “bullshit.”

“I personally, [in] some of the homicide incidents that happened previously, encouraged the community members to come forward. And I personally took them to the police station to talk to their detectives,” Aw-Osman said.

“One of those incidents happened in broad daylight, where there [were] a lot of cameras. And yet that case has not been resolved. So I mean, saying that the community is not coming forward, it’s a piece of crap.”

In a news release last Friday, Aw-Osman and two other Somali community members also took issue with an OPS social media post published four hours after the shooting.

It said there were no further threats to public safety.  Aw-Osman feels it was too early to make such a statement.

“How can you guarantee that there’s no threat [when] the people who caused this homicide are at large?” he said.

“Nobody knows who they are. They can strike again, and we don’t know even who the target was.”

Mayor defends other comments
Aw-Osman and Farah said some comments made by Mayor Mark Sutcliffe did not sit well with them either.

In a Sept. 4 interview with Radio-Canada, Sutcliffe expressed sympathy for those affected by the shooting and called “any event like this … deeply troubling.”

“Even one event is one event too many,” he said. “So we have to put more resources behind this and we have to devote more of the police budget to fighting guns and gangs in our city.”

Farah said Sutcliffe’s comments were fine until he tried “to fundraise or to seek more resources from the community to hire more officers.”

“It’s insensitive,” Farah said, suggesting Sutcliffe had politicized the shooting and that even mentioning the word “gang” was problematic.

In his CTV interview, Stubbs also said the “guns and gangs connection” was being examined. Police have not explicitly said gangs were involved.

On Sunday, Sutcliffe told CBC he was speaking broadly about public concerns around gun violence. He said he mentioned the guns and gangs unit since it investigates gun violence, whether gangs are involved or not.

“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, this is obviously a gang related event,'” Sutcliffe said.

“I’m saying the police unit that looks after gun violence and looks after gang activity is the unit that needs more resources.”

More money needs to be invested in mental health services and other tools to prevent violence, Farah said.

Mohamud agreed.

“We have to look at what the root cause is that this is happening so often within our community,” Mohamud said. “I think those are reasons that are well known to police, well known to Mayor Sutcliffe.

“That’s why we’re trying to connect with the Ottawa Police Service Board to make sure that there are resources that combat youth violence way before it happens — rather than try to blame the community and demand more funding to do more policing.”

CBC reached out to OPS Thursday asking for an interview with Stubbs but was not granted one, or a comment, by deadline.

With files from Safiyah Marhnouj and Radio-Canada

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