Hundreds gather to remember Hodan Nalayeh

Dega Nalayeh had put her dreams on hold, telling herself she’d pick up on her passion to work in education once her son grew older. But that was not to be — not if her sister, Hodan, had anything to do with it.

“Why wait? Tomorrow is not promised to us,” Hodan told her sister at the time.

A year later, those words spur Dega on and serve as a poignant reminder of a life cut short.

Hodan Nalayeh was killed when militants stormed a hotel in the port city of Kismayo in Somalia last week, Somali news organization Radio Dalsan confirmed.

The organization reported the 43-year-old, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, and her husband Farid Jama Suleiman were among the 26 who died.

But Thursday was “not about tragedy” for her sister as hundreds turned out to remember the journalist.

“It’s about celebrating her, her work, her achievements. What she would want us to do is, ‘Remember me by what I stood for,'” Dega Nalayeh said at a memorial held in her sister’s honour in Vaughan, Ont., one week after the attack.

Driven by a thirst to know more

Hodan, a Canadian citizen, who immigrated with her family to Edmonton as a child in 1984 before moving to Toronto in 1992, was beloved in her community.

She was driven by a thirst to know more about the country where she was born, to bring to life for those like her who were uprooted from Somalia, the stories her father had told her about its people, and its spirit.

It was that vision that drove her to leave behind a career in radio advertising and business development sales to go back to school in her late 30s to study broadcast journalism. And that same vision was behind her move back to Somalia last year.

Her dream: to tell positive stories about Somalia, something she did on her program Integration TV, which originally aired on OMNI TV, to help those in the diaspora community see the country through stories not often represented in mainstream news coverage.

“A lot of our youth in our community lack identity in terms of who they are because we’ve been through a civil war as a country and many of us don’t know our heritage,” she said in an interview some years ago on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. 

“The number one thing is how do we teach identity to young people so we can build confident communities that feel like they belong in this country and belong to themselves.” 

“What she would want to share with all the young Somali people is the beautiful country and identity and the country they left behind,” Dega Nalayeh told CBC News at the memorial.

“To see the light where there was no light.”

And so in June, the two travelled to Somalia on a family trip to steep in the country she held dear, and dream up ways of lifting it up. The plan: to help create three elementary schools there, Nalayeh said.

‘She’s always been holding my hand’

But while she was “in love with” Somalia, she also left an indelible mark on those close to her at home, helping to care for her family and even friends’ children whenever she could.

For Hodan’s brother, Latif, the youngest of 12 siblings, losing Hodan was like losing a mother, he said.

“She was someone that I always looked up to. She’s always been holding my hand.”

Nasib Kelley, Hodan’s 11-year-old nephew, recalled when she spent time in Los Angeles, helping to care for him when his mother was at work.

“I really miss her, and she meant a lot to me and I know how she died was not the best, but I want her to be remembered as the best because she was an amazing person and I hope no one forgets that,” he said.

“When I heard of her passing, I thought our family would mourn and our community would mourn. Then I heard our nation was mourning and then I heard internationally there was mourning,” said Kelley.

“You can’t talk about Hodan without talking about how many people she touched all over the world.”

For those closest to Hodan, the hope now is to keep her memory alive through the work that she so loved.

Her sister, Dega, clings now to the little memories, like the two weeks she spent with her in Somalia in late June, seeing Hodan joyful and vibrant in the place she loved most.

“My favourite memory is just playing with the camels on that beautiful land … How fulfilled and happy she was when she was just sharing with us from her own eyes.”

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