By Neil Armstrong
Students at Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School in Thornhill, Ontario, are brimming with ideas about how to celebrate the former Somali-Canadian journalist in whose honour their school was officially renamed on May 19.
Some have suggested including daily quotes from her during the school’s morning announcements, at annual assemblies, and on social media. Others believe that she was a model of inspiration, social activism and education and they want her story told at the school so that all students know it.
Nalayeh, who once resided in Vaughan, and her husband, Farid Jama Suleiman, were among 26 people who were killed in an attack on the Asasey hotel in Kismayo, Somalia, on July 12, 2019.
The renaming ceremony follows a meeting of the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) in early March at which a motion to change the name of Vaughan Secondary School was voted on with 10 of the 12 trustees in favour of it. This change resulted from a major push by the Black community to have it done.
The school’s previous name honoured Benjamin Vaughan, a Jamaica-born British diplomat who stood up in the British Parliament in 1792 and argued that freeing enslaved Africans in Jamaica would bring about the end of civilization.
Cynthia Cordova, chair of the YRDSB, recognized the many members of “our Black community who brought the issue of the naming of this school and the effect that it has had on our students to the attention of trustees and staff.”
“We are grateful for your work to initiate the renaming process and for your advocacy on behalf of the Black students in York Region. It is our hope that the new name will better reflect the identity, the accomplishment, and the aspiration of students at Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School.”
Cordova said many students were involved in the renaming process of the school.
“We heard from many students through their letters, their emails, their posts on social media and the opinions that were shared during the town hall. We are very proud of the way our students shared their voices and we’d like to thank everyone who participated in this process.”
She said all students and staff should feel safe and supported in learning and working environments that are inclusive and identity affirming, and honour and celebrate their identity.
“That is what I think of when I think of Hodan Nalayeh, someone who worked to create safe and identity affirming environments. Hodan was an accomplished young woman, a mother, a resident of Vaughan and she worked to empower and give voice to women, youth and members of the Somali community. It is only fitting then that the first school in York Region District School Board to be named after a Black Muslim woman should be named after Hodan Nalayeh. It is our hopes that when students arrive each day to school and see Hodan’s name that they are reminded of who Hodan was and what she stood for, and they know that they themselves are valued for who they are at Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School.”
Born in Las Anod, Somalia, in 1976, Nalayeh, who had four brothers and seven sisters, and her parents, migrated to Canada in 1984, first settling in Edmonton, Alberta before eventually moving to Toronto in 1992.
She attended West Humber Collegiate Institute and then pursued post-secondary education at the University of Windsor where she received a Bachelor of Arts in communications. Nalayeh also earned a postgraduate certificate in broadcast journalism from Seneca College.
Louise Sirisko, director of education, said they heard very clearly that the school needed to be renamed.
“We heard that the previous name caused hurt and harm to students, staff and members of the broader community, especially the Black community. “
Sirisko said there were many community members who came forward to tell the board that the name did not make them feel safe, valued and included.
In providing a context for the unnaming and renaming of the school, Cecil Roach, coordinating superintendent of Indigenous education and equity, said the
work to develop the Anti-Black Racism Strategy coincided with the effort to rename Vaughan Secondary School .
“Benjamin Vaughan was an owner of enslaved Africans. Not only did he own enslaved Africans, he passionately argued against ending the inhumane system of slavery because according to him it would mean the end of civilization in Jamaica as he knew it. This actually mean that he saw people of African heritage as fundamentally uncivilized and whose very humanity he questioned.”
Roach said that the renaming effort was largely championed by York Region’s Black community and its allies and that the campaign was led by the former Vaughan African Canadian Association, now called ANCHOR, and its tireless leader, Shernett Martin.
After discovering that the school was named after a slaveholder, Martin embarked on a campaign to have it addressed.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to Shernett and we thank her for her efforts that played such a major role in getting us to where we are today – renaming the school after a Black Muslim Somali woman, a Black Somali woman who represents many of the things that the Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Strategy is hoping to achieve. Hodan was a social activist more than a media personality. She, actually, was the kind of woman who believed in raising the voices of Somali Canadians and changing the narrative, the negative narrative, in many cases of Somalis.
Roach said he once heard Nalayeh deliver a keynote speech at an event where women who were survivors of domestic violence were celebrated. Her message was one of telling women to rely on their inner strength and know that the world is at their fingertips, that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve once they work at it.
“One of the priorities of the Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Strategy is a commitment to bold leadership and Hodan Nalayeh certainly embodied this notion, he said.
Roach said the aim of the Anti-Black Racism Strategy is to ensure that Black students have educational journeys that celebrate and affirm their identity, just like Hodan wanted Canadians, the public and the world to understand that Somali Canadians, Somali people, generally, are people who should be celebrated.
He congratulated the Black community and the school trustees for taking the bold decision to name the school after a Somali Black Muslim woman.
Sahra Nalayeh said her sister was someone who loved to have fun, loved music and writing.
“Hodan was a passionate person, she was a person who thought about other people, the experiences they were having, what was happening in their lives, and most of all, how she could support them and tell their story. She loved to tell stories about the human condition. Specifically, when she returned to Canada one of the things she really noticed was there was a lack of stories in the media about the Somali community, the Black community and she wanted to make sure that she had a chance to correct the stories that she was hearing,” Sahra said describing her sister as a humanitarian. She was a mother of two young sons.
“As a journalist, she saw a way that she can contribute to the world, to society to make a difference and she followed her passion and that led her to starting her own media company, her own YouTube channel.”
Shernett Martin said the renaming is a celebration of what it means when “a couple of people believe in something, fight for somrthing, and collectively lean on each other and lean into each other and believe in what they’re doing and then see the fruits of that labour.”
“It was an exercise in fighting for your humanity and your civil rights. It felt like we were in a moment in the past where we were fighting to do something really important.
“And so as a Black woman for me to see another Black woman’s name on a school is extremely fulfilling. The fact that that legacy now is on that building and inside that school it means a great deal – I think it’s going to be the first of many. I think for young Black girls and young Black boys to enter that building and for any equity seeking group to know that this just wasn’t something that was easily done, there was a real push from community behind this. I think it empowers young people to say whether its climate change or fighting against issues that they believe in that you can change the system, you can move the needle.”
Martin said it gives that feeling that they can do it, “they can come together over an issue and fight until they win because that’s exactly what we did.”
Sahra and her father, Ahmed Said, unveiled a portrait of Hodan that will be displayed at the school.