A newcomer in office: Ali Duale’s journey into politics

By Michelle Boon

Posted on February 23, 2022

Photo: Zahed Hoseyni

On August 30, 2021, Ali Duale was officially sworn into office as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Halifax Armadale. In this role, Duale helps define laws in Nova Scotia and authorize spending by the provincial government. He is a leader representing the Halifax community—his community.

Coming to Canada

After fleeing Somalia due to the civil war, and spending seven years in a Kenyan refugee camp, Duale arrived in Halifax in 1997 with his wife and three children.

The family arrived to a very Canadian welcome.

“Everything I see is only snow,” Duale said in an interview with The Newcomer. The long, snowy drive from the airport to Halifax was nerve-wracking for the new immigrant. He couldn’t see any people or buildings. At the time, Duale spoke very little English, so he couldn’t even ask the driver where they were going.

Duale’s anxiety eased when they crossed the Halifax Harbour Bridge. “Finally,” he said, “I am in a place that people live.”

It’s here that Duale created a life for himself and his growing family. From 2004, he worked as a firefighter and served as the Diversity and Community Liaison Officer for the Halifax fire department.

Facing challenges

Although Duale eventually thrived in his new home, he encountered challenges like all new immigrants. One of the biggest being learning English as a second language.

“In real estate, they use the term ‘location, location, location.’ As a newcomer, I think it’s all about ‘the language, the language, the language.’ If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything,” Duale said.

His challenges ranged from simple things like how to use a bank machine, to adjusting to culture shock and the cold Canadian weather.

“Even if you are educated, the weather is the weather. There’s nothing you can do.”

The cold weather was a tough adjustment for Duale, who was used to the sunshine of Somalia and Kenya. When he first arrived in Canada, he was given what appeared to be a jacket made specially for newcomers. “They were heavy duty,” Duale said.

It was his first July in Halifax, and the new immigrant was walking through a public garden. He noticed that people were staring at him, and he wondered why. He couldn’t tell if he was doing something good or bad.

Finally someone approached him to ask. There was a language barrier, but Duale understood. “Here I am, this weirdo guy, wearing this winter, heavy-duty jacket, middle of summer.”

Turns out, even Canadian summers were too cold for the newcomer.

A true Canadian

Getting awkward stares from strangers may feel alienating to some, but Duale does not see himself as different from any other Canadian, newcomer or not.

“This land is a land of immigrants, other than the First Nations […] we all arrive here. For that concept, I am not different than anybody else.”

Nova Scotia made Duale and his family feel welcome. Halifax gave them the tools to live a fulsome life, so Duale was determined to give back to his community.

Particularly, he worked to create safe spaces for other newcomers and Muslims. He helped raise millions of dollars to build the Ummah Mosque and Community Centre. He also coordinated a youth swim program, and ran a basketball program for immigrant kids.

Stepping into politics

Duale’s dedication to Canada and his community made him an ideal candidate to run for the MLA position. Between his family and volunteer commitments, however, he did not have the time. Unfortunately, it was a tragedy that changed his mind.

In June of 2021, a Muslim Canadian family was murdered in London, Ont. in a faith-based hate crime. As a member of the Muslim community and the father of a Muslim family, Duale said he “could not sit back and sleep” upon hearing about the incident.

“My wife and daughters wear hijab, […] that is part of our identity, and I felt that incident brought me home. I felt I had obligation to protect my family. I have obligation to advocate for my community, and I have obligation to continue to fight for this freedom of choice that we all cherish.”

Photo: Zahed Hoseyni

A last minute addition

He was the last candidate to run for election. Many of his competitors began their campaign six months before he even started. But Duale didn’t need to knock on doors, because he had dedicated more than 20 years to volunteering in the Halifax community.

Either as a firefighter, basketball coach, or from his mosque, people knew Duale personally. Most importantly, they knew that he was dedicated to the community, and would serve the people’s best interests while in office.

Creating a better future for newcomers

Now that he’s officially an MLA, part of his work is advocating for newcomers like himself. He expressed that Canada has the opportunities, and newcomers have the potential, but the two do not always come together.

“Most of the times, these immigrants have a lot of skills, and they have a lot of talent, and if we [the government] don’t facilitate that, to work what’s the best for them, that’s a big loss for us,” the MLA said.

Duale hopes to create legislation that makes it easier for newcomers to succeed. To Duale, this will ensure a better future for newcomers as well as Canada.

“That’s how we predict the future,” he continued. “Did we allow these people to succeed? Did we make enough effort to welcome them, to feel home. Did we prepare that infrastructure that will allow them to succeed? Those are the things that will really dictate what the future looks like.”

Photo: Zahed Hoseyni

Defining success

Duale came to Halifax without a winter coat. He had his family and only a few words in English. Over 20 years later, he was elected a leader in his community. As Duale put it, “I come here nothing, I was nobody. I have everything today, and I’m somebody.”

His “everything” includes more than his career or community work. He is also a father of eight children and a grandfather. When he’s not serving his community, he’s enjoying life with his family, camping, playing basketball, and cheering for the Toronto Raptors.

To most people, it’s a success story among success stories, but Duale is extremely humble about his accomplishments.

“I have no idea if I succeeded,” he said. “Life is a journey, I am grateful [for] where I was and where I am today.”

Advice to other newcomers

As for his advice to other immigrants, he had this to say:

“Be part of the society, rather than segregating and feeling that you don’t belong here, and feeling you have nothing to contribute. Each one of us has something that we can offer this land. Each one of us can make contributions.”

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