A pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and an eye-opening family discussion led a brother and sister in Ottawa’s west end to launch an Instagram photo project that aims to change perceptions about their neighbourhood.
The series is called, “Portraits of Black Somali Youth from Ritchie,” and it pairs a dozen images of young men with their first-person stories of racial discrimination.
The goal for Faisa Omer is to show that despite the headlines, there’s more to Ritchie’s young, Black men.
“Ritchie’s known for gangs and violence. Growing up in Ritchie, we’ve seen a lot of things. I remember looking out the window and seeing guys handling a gun. Every other year there’s a death and it’s splashed all over the newspapers,” she explained, asking some of her models to smile for the camera to challenge those negative stereotypes.
“We’re trying to show the sense of innocence. They’re just regular males that live in Ottawa. Even though they live in Richie they’re still trying to live their lives, go to university, get a job, get a family, like every other person.”
Growing up Ritchie
The project grew out of a conversation the Omer family had, right in the Ritchie Street neighbourhood where Faisa and her six younger siblings grew up.
The 28-year-old photographer and mental health clinician had left her Edmonton apartment to hunker down with family during COVID-19.
In the wake of Floyd’s murder last May, the Somali-Canadian family started to talk about the racism they’d faced. But it was Faisa’s younger brother Abdullahi — the only male in the room for that talk — whose experiences stood out.
“He kept saying, ‘You know what? This isn’t new. I don’t know why you guys think this is new. This is every day,'” rsaid Faisa. “When he started telling us the stories, I was like, ‘Did your friends go through this?”
Faisa’s equipment was already set up in the basement. Abdullahi, 21, organized the shoots featuring himself and friends he’d grown up with.
“I took photos of boys because they’re the ones being profiled. My brother and his friends do get people who hold their purses tighter to their chests, you know? People do fear them,” said Faisa, who studied photography at Algonquin.
One of the young men profiled shared a story about going to a nearby clothing store to apply for a job with a friend.
“We asked the cashier if the manager was available and he said she wasn’t. So we said out loud that we would go to another store in the area. We later found out through a friend that works at the store that the cashier actually called that [second] store to warn them not to hire us,” reads the Instagram post.
Abdullahi also shared his story about being the only Black student in an academic-streamed English class, when his teacher accused him of cheating on an in-class assignment.
Confused and upset, Abdullahi approached the teacher, asking him, “What are you trying to say? That this work is too good for it to be [mine]? That’s when it hit me — so I made him repeat it. ‘You’re saying that this is too good to come from me.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah,'” said Abdullahi.
After the Omer family reported this to incident to the school, the teacher remarked the assignment, giving Abdullahi a C-minus. He switched schools the next year and is now enrolled in Carleton University’s industrial design program, where he is one of two Black students.
For him, the goal of the portrait project is to reveal what people from Ritchie can achieve.
“It’s a way to stick it to the man, saying, ‘Yeah we are from Richie and we’re doing this and we’re doing that and we’re proud of it,'” explained Abdullahi.
Though the Omer family has lived on Ritchie or nearby Penny Drive and Ramsey Crescent for more than two decades, both Faisa and Abdullahi say it can be risky to to reveal their address to those outside the community.
Faisa remembers a revealing conversation with a co-worker at her first after-school job in Bells Corners.
When they realized they lived on the same street, he asked her to not to tell anyone, saying he’d changed his address on his resumé to get the job.
“And it’s just Tim Hortons!” she joked. Her colleague, Faisa explained, was afraid the manager would think that because he’s Black and from that neighbourhood, he was affiliated with a gang.
Abdullahi says that even today, he’s still careful who he reveals his address to.
“To people that look like us, we’ll say we’re from Ritchie. But when it comes to jobs and schools, we won’t say it as much because we know it can have an effect on how people look at us. Normally, we just say we’re from the west end of Ottawa,'” he explained.
The portraits have prompted a number of Instagram followers to share their own stories of racism.
Faisa says her background in neuroscience and counselling — she currently works with Somali youth — has helped her respond to the outpouring of sometimes disturbing comments.
While she is not surprised to hear many in Ottawa have faced discrimination, she was saddened to realize these incidents still bother these men, much later.
For example, even though the young man with the retail discrimination story applied for that job several years ago, Faisa said that during the photo shoot he expressed pent-up anger telling the story, saying the manager could “keep his minimum wage job” since he got a better job the following week.
For Abdullahi, the lasting impact of these experiences is feeling you don’t belong.
“Everywhere we go, we realize when we’re the only minority in a group,” he said.
“It makes us feel like we shouldn’t be there. We don’t look like everyone else and we’re not treated like everyone else. It becomes hard for us to move forward and try to do better for ourselves. We feel like we shouldn’t.”
Now that Faisa has left the neighbourhood, she sees this project as a way to give back. She is considering continuing the series with more portraits from Ottawa, or of youth she works with in Edmonton.
For Abdullahi’s part, he wants to make a difference in how his west-end community is perceived.
“This is a neighborhood we know. We know that everything the media portrays is not how it really is. We want to show how it affects us that everyone looks at us differently because we’re from Ritchie, and because we’re Black.”