Finding Home By Giving Back

Bashir Mohamed reflects on his years supporting youth through volunteering at ECF

Bashir Mohamed has never felt fully in control of his own life.

He was born in Nairobi, Kenya, where his parents had escaped to from Somalia and spent the previous three years in a refugee camp. This means “I was born stateless, a citizen of no country,” he says. In 1997, at three years old, his family received asylum in Canada and was placed in Edmonton’s north side — in the middle of winter. “My sister convinced me that snow was sugar, so I put it in my backpack, and it all melted. That was my first winter experience,” he recalls.

Living in wintery Edmonton surely beats being a stateless citizen (Mohamed’s not even sure if he was born in the Nairobi camp itself or a hospital), but being on the city’s north side still felt like a place he was put, and emphasized his lack of agency. “I feel like we never really picked Edmonton, we were put here by the government, and we didn’t really pick the north side, that’s just where social housing was.”

But Mohamed made his way in the only home he knew, and did well in the one thing he could control — his schoolwork. One day, his AP (Advanced Placement) English class teacher asked if he’d be interested in becoming a member of Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) Young Edmonton Grants committee to help review applications for funding. “I’m not sure exactly what she saw in me, but that started a decade-long affiliation with the Foundation” that’s helped people like (and unlike) himself.

She probably saw the character of someone who volunteered for the school’s environmental club, fundraised for local charities and went classroom to classroom speaking about important causes like sponsoring children in war-torn countries. After high school, he worked with Black Lives Matter Edmonton, “But that was pre 2020, when we were more controversial and kind of less accepted, doing work in response to things that the City and police department were doing.” All along, he worked with teachers and other students to help others and gain some control. “It wasn’t just me, it was the teachers who provided support and the other students, as well.”

At the University of Alberta, he continued doing well, completing his Bachelor of Arts, majoring in political science with a minor in sociology, but still felt restricted by tuition costs, so he applied for ECF’s Hilltop Awards and Bursaries (then known as the ECF Awards and Bursaries), which were “for students who have a connection to Edmonton, and financial need, and who will contribute back to the community.”

About a year later, he was asked to sit on the committee, which grants approximately 150 students between $1,000 and $6,000 each. “We would each review like 50 or 60 applications, and then deliberate for hours. And by the end of it, 100-plus students would receive potentially life-saving money that would help them fulfill their dreams.”

Anna Opryshko, ECF’s Student Awards Associate, has seen Mohamed grow and give back to his community since he received his first student award from the Foundation.

“It’s wonderful to see students who receive funding from ECF come full circle and volunteer with us to help others find success,” Opryshko says. “Bashir has sat on various committee’s for more than a decade at ECF and we have enjoyed watching him grow as a person and give back to his community.”

Now, at 28, Mohamed says he’s grateful for the freedom and experience the Hilltop Awards provided him, which helped get him to where he is today: a member of the Royal Canadian Navy, living in British Columbia for the past three years. As his term with ECF’s Hilltop Committee comes to a close, he’s beginning to focus on himself — and the stars. “In many ways, my term ending around this time is a funny coincidence, because I think it’s time for me to really get into my passions, and find ways to connect those passions to community — like stargazing. Something I love doing is taking a telescope and standing on a street corner, and within minutes someone will come by and take a peek, and I’ll show them Saturn, my favourite planet. And their reaction is amazing, every time.”

This story comes from the Fall 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full issue.