Toronto’s TikTok teacher reconnects with her Somali heritage

Zahra Hassan moves to the front of her classroom, her blue-and-white Somalia jersey a not-so-subtle hint about the day’s lesson.

Hassan, 29, began teaching three years ago. Last year she generated headlines by going viral on TikTok for her 1990s-inspired oversized tops, baggy jeans, and chunky sneakers.

Now, she’s hoping she can use her fashion connection with students to get them interested in something else she shares with some of them: her Somali heritage.

“Whenever I see Somali parents, they always just come up and they’re just so proud because there aren’t a lot of us teaching,” Hassan told CBC Toronto.

Hassan, 29, began teaching three years ago. Last year she generated headlines by going viral on TikTok for her 1990s-inspired oversized tops, baggy jeans, and chunky sneakers. (Laura Pederson/CBC)

The Toronto District School Board celebrates Somali Heritage Month in October, presenting the perfect opportunity for Hassan to reintroduce herself by weaving songs and literature from the Somali-Canadian creators she grew up with into her lessons.

Hassan says familiarizing students with Somali Heritage Month begins with history — and dispelling some common misconceptions.

“Some of the kids were surprised when they heard that Africa is not a country,” she said.

For one of this week’s lessons, Hassan also taught her students about Somalia’s history of war— using pop music.  

“I wanted to tie it back to the K’Naan song Waving Flag because I know a lot of kids have heard it and I wanted to show students the story behind the lyrics,” she said.

Zahra’s class is a microcosm of a broader conversation happening within Toronto’s Somali community: How can Somali culture be passed down to future generations who find themselves growing up in a culturally diverse megacity far from their ancestral homeland?

There are over 41,000 Somali-Canadians living in Ontario, according to the 2021 census, the vast majority of whom reside in the Greater Toronto Area.

In the early 1990s, Somalia’s civil war forced many Somalis to seek refuge in various countries, including Canada. Among them were Hassan’s parents.

Growing up in Toronto, Hassan found inspiration in her parents’ experiences during the war and their strength afterwards: “Coming to a country, fleeing war, and then building a life and sustaining it in a country they knew nothing about.”

Somali youth find themselves caught between two distinct cultures according to a 2016 report published by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

Generational differences “put a strain on the relationship between parents and children,” the report found, noting that as youth Somalis must navigate both mainstream secular Canadian culture and Somali Muslim culture.  

Addressing this requires community centres, stressed Somali-Canadian writer Mohamed Abdi, in an opinion piece for WardheerNews earlier this year.

“The Somali-Canadian community has failed to set up institutions that can work for their collective grounds and well-being, thereby making segments of the community work in silos,” Abdi wrote.

Following decades of community efforts, a Somali Centre for Culture and Recreation was established in 2021, with an aim to open its doors within the next five years.

Hassan adheres to the virtue of Somalinimo, which means community unity. She says it helps her steer the work she does with her students.

“The heritage month is about Somali excellence: to educate, elevate and excel,” she said. “We’re here and we’re connected. A great way to show our Somalinimo.”

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