It all started with a little boy, a stuffed monkey, and a pair of scissors.
Ibrahim Musa, now 18, says that cutting his stuffed animal’s hair – and his own – is one of his first memories here in Canada.
“I have a memory of standing in front of a mirror with a stuffed monkey, cutting his hair and cutting my own hair,” says Musa, who says he was about five years old at the time.
“It turned out terrible for both me and the teddy bear.”
Musa immigrated from Iraq when he was four years old, and times were tough for his family.
“We didn’t have enough money for anything; haircuts were not an option,” recalls Musa. “Haircuts were done by my mother, but my mother’s not a hairstylist.
“As much as the love was there, the style was not,” he laughs.
He says he felt self-conscious of his appearance at school, and remembers being bullied. His self-esteem suffered.
Life eventually got easier; Musa’s family found their footing and moved to Kanata. But as he finished high school, the news coverage of Syrian refugees resonated with him – and he could just imagine how the children among them must feel arriving in this country.
Musa decided to start an organization that would give underprivileged kids a free haircut, and help them feel better about themselves.
“Appearance is such a big thing with kids,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter how old or young he is, if a kid walks out of a barbershop, he’s got a smile on his face. He feels like a million dollars.”
Now a first-year political science student at the University of Ottawa, Musa is executive director of the Cuts for Kids Foundation (cutsforkids.org).
Last May, with the help of Cuts for Kids colleagues Ahmed Mohamed and Johnny Xi, Musa began staging hair-cutting events for Ottawa communities in need.
“Milan Arsenault-Verrelli at Hairfellas BarberShop was the first barber that I pitched the idea to,” says Musa. “He was so supportive, and so was Carlos Noja, the owner.
“They’ve been with us for every event; they’ve been so dedicated.”
Cuts for Kids has already held five Ottawa-based events – with more in the works for 2017 – and Musa is currently in the process of applying for charitable status.
Musa also recruits hairstylists for the girls, although the salons change from event to event, since they don’t have a dedicated hair salon yet. Events are set up to keep boys and girls separate.
“A lot of communities have young girls with hijabs, and we want to respect everybody’s wishes,” says Musa.
He says he has been amazed at the outpouring of support from the hairstyling community.
“In every community, local stylists have come to us and said, ‘We really want to do this,’” says Musa.
He’s also thrilled that other community organizations have approached him about joining forces, including the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre in the St. Laurent area.
The service centre offered up services related to new refugee settlement, legal knowledge, computer and smartphone literacy, and English skills.
“It was a really fantastic opportunity for the community to be aware of the resources around them, that they don’t know are there,” says Musa, adding that’s the true theme of the Cuts for Kids Foundation.
“We’re not just a haircut; we want to make sure that through community events, the community becomes more engaged after our visit.”
At a Cuts for Kids event in Sandy Hill in November, Samara Canada – a non-profit focused on voter engagement – joined in. Musa says Samara’s focus was to ensure the community knows why voting is important. They staged a mock vote, and talked to participants about the upcoming by-election.
“There’s a serious disconnect between [new immigrants and] their neighbours, between services available to them, between politicians,” says Musa. “If they’re a little more on the same page, it goes a long way.
“When we leave these communities after an event, we want them to be a little more tightly knit.”
To volunteer or to find out more about the next Cuts for Kids event, visit: facebook.com/CutsForKidsOTT.