It is our great pleasure to announce that Kadhija Ali will be playing the part of Miriam in our upcoming production Sweepstakes (Bakhtiyanasiib). Miriam’s character is a young Somali mother who struggles to rebuild a life for her family here in Canada; Kadhija recently sat down with one of the directors of the film to tell us a bit about herself, and how she can relate to the character she is portraying. Take a minute to get to know this extremely talented, Somali-Canadian actor.
Director: Kadhija, tell us a bit about yourself and your experience building a life in Canada.
Kadhija: I was born in Hargeisa and I came to Canada with my brother, sisters and mother when I was 9 years old. My dad passed away shortly before we left home for Canada so it was generally not a good time for our family.
We arrived in Canada in the middle of February. It was extremely cold. We had barely any clothes, and the ones we did have were not meant for a Canadian winter. My memory of the time is a bit cloudy because I was so young, but I remember crossing the border in Buffalo on our way to Ottawa and I just remember being extremely cold and trying to huddle to keep warm with my sister and my brother. My mom didn’t speak any English so it was hard for her to communicate with the customs agents. They put us in some kind of Shelter for a couple of days while we were waiting to be processed and allowed to cross into Canada. I just remember the experience being really scary.
When we arrived in Ottawa we found an apartment and my mom put us in French school. Our family speaks French, so this helped a bit with the transition, but communicating with other kids in my class and my teacher was difficult because the french they speak in Ottawa is very different from what I learned in Africa. I had no friends in my grade. A lot of kids were really mean because I looked different, I sounded different, and the only friend I had was a girl who was two grades older than me. I wasn’t just the only Somali kid in school, my sisters and I were the only black kids. I was so shy, and too scared to even talk to people.
When I came to Toronto I found my niche. At the high school I went to I think about 70% of the students there were also immigrants like me from different parts of Africa or Europe. I had a lot of things in common with them. We had similar experiences and had faced similar issues. Life suddenly started to become a lot better.
Director: How do you think all of these experiences shaped the person you are today?
Kadhija: The whole experience of losing my dad, leaving my home and coming here – made me withdraw from what is going on around me, and because of that I’m a very introverted person. What I noticed the most, looking back on my childhood as an adult, is that I was always extremely scared about everything. I was scared to play outside, I was scared to try to make new friends, I was scared to disappoint my mother or my teachers. I was the oldest daughter, I wanted to set a good example, and be there to support my mom.
Director: That is the funny thing with actors, they are the bravest people in the world the way they put themselves out there on stage or in front of a camera, but they are also the most sensitive people in the world.
Kadhija: I’m an extremely sensitive and emotional person. I remember growing up as a teenager my emotions would sometimes consume me. Every little thing overwhelmed me and created a havoc. I constantly heard from my family that I was “too much” or “crazy”. I think I was born with a great sense of awareness of my surroundings and of other people. I hated this part of me but now I see it as a gift and I try to appreciate it for what it is because it’s a necessity for my craft.
Director: When did you realize you wanted to act?
Kadhija: I always knew I wanted to do it, but I was too afraid to even admit it to myself. It was scary to even hear myself say, “I want to be an actress”. It sounded crazy because it was so far fetched in relation to my educational and cultural upbringing. I thought there was no way I could be an actress. So I just kept pushing it off.
I went through a period in my life when I was about 25 years old where I started questioning what I was doing. I’d finished school, and I didn’t like the job that I had, and I didn’t know what to do next. I felt stuck. On my 30th birthday I went away for about three months by myself to Spain, where I did a lot of thinking, a lot of contemplating, a lot of crying. I took some time and I came to the realization I want to act. I only have this life to live. I told myself, just do it, what are you so scared of? What is the worst thing that could happen? If you fail, you fail. At least you tried.
Director: Why are you taking the step to act now?
Kadhija: Because I don’t want to be scared anymore. Like I said I was scared of everything growing up and I’m sick and tired of being scared. I don’t want to look back on life when I’m 80 years old and have regrets. I don’t want to say, I wish I had done that, or tried it at least. I don’t want to have any regrets. I’m just putting all the passion and energy I have into acting right now and if it is meant to be it will happen. If not, that’s fine, at least I will know that I tried and gave it my all. I’m really insecure, sometimes I wonder do I have what it takes, do I even have talent, but I just keep pushing because I love it so much and keep hoping for the best.
Director: Why do you think that making things like films, plays and art is important for a culture and a community?
Kadhija: I think it is important to show the human condition, and all the crazy things people go through. Life is not always pretty. There are lots of ups and downs and dark things that happen. And it’s important for artists to show all aspects of life. I think people need to be more open in our community, and to realize the importance of art to portray life in all of its ugliness and beauty.
Director: What would you say to a young girl who is from the Somali community and may be sitting at home thinking they want to do this?
Kadhija: I would tell them to really think and be certain that this is something they want to do. A lot of people think of filmmaking and they imagine all the glamour, they don’t think about all of the work that goes into it, they just imagine the end result, being on movie screens, dressed glamorously on red carpets. You have to think about how hard it is to go to auditions and find work and make sure you are mentally and emotionally ready for that and doing it for the right reasons: because you love art, because you want to tell stories. If that’s the case and someone is really passionate about acting I would tell them to follow their dreams.
Director: What is it that you hope to get out of this process?
Kadhija: As an actor you learn about yourself, and it challenges you in so many different ways. I think it makes you a stronger and better person. No matter how my acting career turns out I hope that I will continue to feel proud of myself for having the courage to pursue my love of acting. I hope to continue to learn and grow and explore the unknown by engaging with and creating material that challenges norms. I believe that creating must inherently explore limitations and push expectations – and that through this creative process – we can start to appreciate what it means to be human and affect change in our lives.
I also hope that I can be an inspiration to other people in my community. I want a little kid to be able to watch this film and say, “look at Kadhija she looks like me, maybe I really can do this.”
Finally I hope to one day have the chance to work with my favourite actor, Mr. Denzel Washington, I would die very happy.
Director: What is it about Sweepstakes that speaks to you?
Kadhija: There is finally going to be a film that speaks about the hardship our community went through, leaving our country and building a new life here. I like the general theme of this movie, it’s a film about a family who is fleeing a war torn country and trying to stick together, persevere and rebuild their life.
I also love that this film tells a positive story about our community. Because in the last few years our community has had a lot of negative coverage in the media and no one is telling the positive stories. We need to tell these stories for ourselves as a community to unite and share a common experience, and so that the broader Canadian population can get to know more about our community and our culture.