Hodan Nalayeh knows what it takes to successfully integrate into a new culture and society. As one of 11 kids, she immigrated to Canada from Somalia with her family at age six in 1984 – and has thrived ever since.
After graduating from Etobicoke’s West Humber Collegiate Institute, Nalayeh went on to receive her Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the University of Windsor, then a postgraduate certificate in broadcast journalism from Seneca College.
Following an early career in American radio and TV – where her credits included American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance – Nalayeh has now returned to her roots as host and executive producer of City’s Integration: Building a New Cultural Identity.
The weekly, half-hour program showcases the Somali-Canadian experience through stories that “empower, enlighten and inspire.” Now mid-way through its 26-episode first season, Integration has, through the power of social media, spread beyond Toronto to the international Somali Diaspora.
Full episodes of the show can be viewed online at bit.ly/1hJQrBy
For more information, go to www.integrationtv.com, follow @IntegrationTV on Twitter or visit the Integration TV page on Facebook.
Q&A with Hodan Nalayeh
1) Tell us about your background.
My family was one of the first Somali-Canadian families to arrive in Canada in 1984. I was turning seven when we arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, which was -40 degrees in the middle of winter. My parents arrived with 11 children, and we grew up in Alberta as one of the few Somalis there for many years. My mom, however, thought people thrive better in networks, so she wanted us to relocate to Toronto, because it was better connected here and more Somalis were coming here in the 1990s. So we relocated to Toronto in 1992 and we moved to 79 John Garland Blvd.
2) What was the neighbourhood like at that time?
There was a lot of diversity, meaning that it was a lot of West Indians and there wasn’t really a lot of Somali families. Our house was across the street from the projects, so again you run into that not being part of the community again, because we were one of the few Somali families in that area. But as time progressed, more Somalis started moving in and I guess that’s when the whole place became more of a community place. Of course, it had a known bad reputation growing up anyway, because there was a lot of violence and things like that, but we didn’t really associate with that because we were busy going to school.
3) The name of your show is Integration: Building a New Identity. What does “integration” mean to you?
Integration means basically knowing who you are, as a person and as a culture that you come from, but also realizing that you are Canadian – because we are here now, growing up in this country, and we have children in this country. So, basically it’s taking those two identities and making the best of both worlds.
You leave behind whatever you left – the war, the fighting, the corruption in that country – and you come to a country like Canada where you have democracy and freedom to practice your religion, to be who you want to be, to have all these opportunities. Basically, integration is balancing that new life, where you still keep your culture, but you embrace the new culture that you’re in. And I think a lot of Somalis have struggled with that – they haven’t embraced the culture of the new, because they’re afraid if they become too Canadian, they’re going to lose themselves.
4) What was your inspiration for the show?
What inspired me was what happened with the Mayor Ford scandal, because I saw that my community didn’t have a voice. There they were, being stigmatized by the media referring to all these young Somalis as “drug dealers”, but nobody was questioning why a prominent person like the mayor, who knows better, would be in a neighbourhood doing that. These were kids in poverty who were selling drugs because they can’t find jobs and don’t have any other outlets, yet the mayor, who is a multi-millionaire, is going into these neighbourhoods and doing drugs.
So I think the media was unfair (in its portrayal of young Somalis), in that, instead of looking at it from the perspective of, you know what, there isn’t really any outreach to the Somali community, and there isn’t really that many leaders for us that have integrated, because many of the professionals in our community kind of shy away from getting involved, and that’s not right. We need to be more proactive for our community and kind of get back to the neighbourhood and say ‘I’m a role model, and I can help these kids realize a better vision for their lives.”
5) Tell us about the show.
It’s every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. on CityTV and it’s basically a half an hour of inspiring young people, inspiring the community, but also talking about the social challenges that we have, because you can’t be all positive and not address the negatives. But we always try to leave with a solution.
Basically what we do is share stories. A very powerful one we did is mental health in our community, which is a very big topic in Canadian society, period, but it’s actually even worse in a visible minority community like ours, because it’s such a shame...I had one girl on who suffered depression after a car accident with her sister, but her family was telling her ‘there’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t need medicine.’ But she realized if she didn’t get help, she would probably kill herself.
So it’s just advocating on behalf of these people and telling their stories so that people can see themselves in it, and then want to be inspired by those stories.
We also find successful people, like a Somali chiropractor who has seven clinics in Toronto, and a young Somali guy who designs apps and has a top-selling kids app right now – things that you would never know about Somali people.
Integration also shows our religion, which is Islam, in a different light, which had not been shown on Canadian television before. We have an imam who’s very prominent in the community, his name is Sheikh Said Rageah and he is very powerful. He’s connecting with not just the Somali viewers, but with non-Somalis, too, by explaining the religion from a positive perspective, because obviously our religion has had a bad rap, too.
6) What is your ultimate goal with the show? Who do you hope to reach?
I hope to inspire young Somalis to really be active in their communities and to do more, to get involved, to be inspirational for the next generation. I have two children; I’m a mom of two young boys. I hope when they grow up and they’re going to university, they can say they have a media that talks to them and there are positive stories about who they are and what they’re about. I think it’s all about leaving a legacy for our children and giving back to the next generation.