TORONTO - Less than 24 hours after gunshots rang out yet again in the heart of Toronto’s Somali community last week, a group of girls and women were doing the downward dog with police officers in the “dingy” basement of a highrise around the corner from the shooting scene.
Wednesday night is yoga night at 320 Dixon Rd., a rundown apartment building near Islington Ave. in Etobicoke.
The building is one of several highrises dotting a locality long known for its gun crime, gangs and miscreant youth — a place where residents generally distrust police.
The yoga class is a Toronto Police initiative developed by the force’s Somali Liaison Unit.
Started last November, the police service wants to build trust with members of the neighbourhood’s prominent Somali community and create inroads to an area of the city that has become blinkered when it comes to its crime problems.
The weekly sessions are run by three female officers. The lead instructor, Const. Jeniffer Sidhu, is a certified instructor in Vinyasa yoga who runs the classes out of a “dingy” room in the building’s basement.
But the room’s lack of aesthetics is offset by the enjoyment seen on the faces of practitioners, Sidhu said.
When classes started in November, four young Somali girls signed up. Now , there are 40 girls, mothers and grandmothers hitting yoga mats every Wednesday evening.
“These are the young girls that live within the surrounding area that is filled with gangs and drugs and guns,” Sidhu said, explaining the sessions build trust and teaches participants to “focus” on the positive.
“We are there informally ... teaching and showing them not to fear police, that we’re there to assist and help, and it is informally done, so we actually have a relationship with the girls.”
Reasons for the community’s distrust of police, Sidhu said, range from low educational attainment by its youth to negative experiences with law enforcement in their native country.
Sidhu said the officers running the classes make it a point not to question participants on criminal happenings in the neighbourhood.
“They do know that they can speak to (us) if there is anything they want to talk about or discuss,” she added.
Sidhu called the yoga classes a “baby step in the police building better relationships” with the city’s Somali community.
In recent years, Toronto Police have made efforts to recruit potential officers of Somali descent with limited success. Of the force’s 5,503 uniformed officers, only three have Somali background, according to Sidhu.
United in yoga
IMAGE 1 OF 14