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From refugee to MP: Ahmed Hussen’s remarkable path to Parliament

Storyline:National News

When Ahmed Hussen strides down Weston Rd, cars stop and shop owners emerge from their storefronts, women kiss his cheeks and teenagers want selfies and fist bumps.

“Congratulations!” one man yells. “Mabrouk!” cries another, echoing the sentiment in Arabic.

“Thank you,” Hussen responds, flashing his big smile and adding “shukran” without missing a beat.

Since his election victory on Monday evening, Hussen, 39, has become a celebrity whose fame extends beyond his York South-Weston riding. The first Canadian of Somali descent to be elected to the House of Commons has been getting Facebook messages from Africa and media requests from the BBC.

The Star named Hussen a “person to watch” back in 2004, putting him on the front page as someone who was going to make a difference in the city.

“I don’t think I could handle the life of a politician,” he said at the time. “I like following it and I like working in it. But I don’t want to be front and centre.”

He keeps a framed copy of the article on the wall in his campaign office, and when the words are pointed out to him, he laughs, saying only: “Well, that’s what I thought at the time.”

Hussen has traced an improbable path to Parliament Hill, one that could inspire anyone who has grown up in poverty, faced adversity or felt the sting of discrimination — because he knows all three.

After arriving alone as a 16-year-old refugee from Mogadishu, Hussen completed high school in Hamilton and then moved in with one of his brothers, who had secured a subsidized apartment in Regent Park.

A backlog in refugee applications for permanent residency meant that Hussen couldn’t qualify for a student loan. So instead of waiting for his papers, he got a job and spent more than a year commuting nearly two hours to pump gas at a station in Mississauga, where he was paid $6.85 an hour.

“The fact that I lived in public housing was crucial to being able to save for university,” he said in an interview with Star Touch.

Talking with his hands and closing his eyes to remember the scene, Hussen described how, after graduating from York, he found himself pounding the pavement back in Regent, when he came upon a flyer for a barbecue hosted by local MPP George Smitherman. He attended, determined to secure a volunteer position at Queen’s Park.

“I wanted to use volunteer experience to get a job. I never thought I would end up working there,” he said.

Smitherman was so impressed with Hussen that he encouraged the young man to apply for a job in then-Opposition leader Dalton McGuinty’s office. Hussen got it, and when the Liberals won the election in 2003, he followed McGuinty to the premier’s office.

Surprisingly, Hussen says he didn’t learn his most important political lessons at the provincial legislature; they came closer to home.

Fed up with his housing conditions, Hussen helped form the Regent Park Community Council, which took a leadership role in advocating for residents during the $500-million revitalization project. The council negotiated additional subsidized units in the new Regent Park plan as well as more businesses, services and amenities.

“I was working in Queen’s Park all day, and then returning home to organize for Regent Park in the evenings and on weekends,” he said.

Hussein left the premier’s office to become president of the Canadian Somali Congress, which worked with police, schools and governments across the country on cross-cultural programs, many of which were outdated and still focused on adaptation and settlement instead of integration.

“In Alberta, folks forget that that community is made up of Canadians from Ontario; they’re not recent refugees from Somalia,” he said. “And that’s important, because it has an effect on the relationship the police and the school board have with the community. We worked really hard to correct that.”

Now trained as a lawyer and practising in Weston, the father of two young boys is heading to Ottawa, where he’s determined to avoid being a token Somali MP.

“I’m not a guy who’s going to only serve one community,” he says. “I’m trying to show people that you can exercise leadership outside your community.”