Interview with Awale Robleh : Helping radicalized individuals

“We are a part of that journey of Second Chances and redemption”
– Awale Robleh […]

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Sometimes, radicalized individuals who have turned to extremist violence need help to distance themselves from the ideology they have been engaged in for years ; they also need to move on with their lives. On occasion, they are incarcerated and others, who have been more fortunate, are still in their communities. Either way, in Ottawa, some of those individuals and their needs are taken care of by a caseworker, such as Awale Robleh, who works for the John Howard Society of Ottawa (JHSO).

Awale Robleh
Project Lead, Project ReSet 
John Howard Society of Ottawa 

JHSO has been working with people involved in extremist violence for nearly two years. Awale is one of the caseworkers who focuses on Project ReSet. Prior to this professional experience, he was working with individuals involved in gangs.

Project ReSet is an intervention program that focus on “individuals who are maybe at risk for ideologically motivated violence, targeted violence or hate crimes”, Awale explains.

“It really is just working with someone one-on-one to meet agreed-upon goals and just provide that support, whatever it could be. It could be employment, it could be housing, it could be education, it could be 101 other things.”

A part of his job is to help people who aredetained in provincial or federal institutions. He must go inside the institution to meet with them and build his rapport. “We go to folks that are going to be released relatively soon and start to support that reintegration plan.” Although his services can be requested from a probation parole officer or even court, Awale assures that most of the participants agree to participate on a voluntary basis. “It’s on us [caseworkers] to build a strong rapport, it’s on us to open the door and at least take the first step in having those conversations and beginning that relationship, but it is entirely voluntary and all depends on what the individual is willing to do and how much they’re willing to engage.”

As a caseworker, helping radicalized individuals inside a prison is one approach, and helping people within the community is another one. The Ottawa caseworker has been using both of these two approaches and says that they both require him to meet with multiple people : “It’s a lot of one-on-one work but it’s important to work with an individual’s networks, so their collateral, whether it be formal or informal support, we try to go that wraparound approach to hopefully support.”

From a person to another, the support system can change from parents, siblings and other family members to mental health professionals or a probation officer who is supporting this person in the rehabilitation process.

“The collateral is to know who’s available in this person’s life ? Who can support them ? Who can help them in their journey ?”


Working towards a Second Chance

Helping people in their reintegration in the community and working with them towards a Second Chance is a daily thing for Awale Robleh. He thinks Second Chances are not given by caseworkers but by society. “Second Chances need to come from people like employers, from schools, from law enforcement, from other institutions in our society and maybe even our society or our population in general, he says. This is where the Second Chances need to come from. [Caseworkers] may act as guides on that journey and just to support in that journey.”

He considers that his job is to help individuals in their redemption journey to take full advantage of the Second Chances they get. He believes that everyone deserves a Second Chance.

“It’s not necessarily just about the individuals that are involved in violent extremism ; I think that it’s a lot of people that are involved in the justice system, they don’t benefit from those Second Chances.”

A day as a caseworker

Caseworkers are seeing several people every day and building them a tailored made program to fit their unique needs, which means every day is different. From one work day to the other, Awale and his coworkers at the JHSO never really know what to expect : “somebody could be in a crisis and then your whole day shifts and you have to focus on that”, the caseworker
mentions. “I can appreciate how spontaneous things can happen”, he concludes.

The biggest part of the work, according to Awale, is what he calls “building up protective factors and reducing risk factors”. These “protective factors” and “risk factors” can vary from one person to another. Whether an individual benefits from family support or not, whether he has a job, goes to school and has a social network, they can all be considered either as protective or as risk factors.

“What’s leading this person to antisocial high-risk behaviour that may potentially be criminal ? And what are the things that are preventing that person from engaging in that same behaviour ?”

Those are the main questions that guide Awale in order to identify the risk areas and the protective factors in a person’s life.


Through Project ReSet, Awale must meet with individuals that were engaged in violent extremist behaviour and help them in the rehabilitation and reintegration process. He prefers to say that he helps them disengage from violent extremism rather than deradicalize.

“In the space of counselling violent extremism, there’s a lot of conversations around ‘are we aiming for deradicalization ?’, which is the cognitive restructure. It’s the piece that we changed somebody’s belief, we take them out of that ideology completely. That is more challenging than disengagement, which is the physical disengagement, the abandoning of violence. It may involve them being physically separated from the group or the source of the ideology, their position in that group might change or any other thing that may lead to them not participating in violence anymore.”

The disengagement process might not change somebody’s beliefs, but the caseworker thinks the goal has been achieved if the person doesn’t participate in acts of violence anymore. “We live in a democratic society where it’s not prohibited to have radical views, it’s what you do with those views that may land people into trouble”, he says.

Even though, the caseworker admits there is always a risk that a person goes back to violent extremism after disengaging, there is a risk as well in the deradicalization approach : “one thing that I’ve learned over the years is if you’re going to remove something, be prepared to replace it with something else.” He then explained that someone who is in a deradicalization process might just be looking for another ideology to adhere to.


Through the Pandemic

Even though the global pandemic has complicated Awale Robleh’s tasks, COVID-19 didn’t stop him from helping people. “It has absolutely changed things, not being able to engage with the folks in person, going to coffee shops or even going to institutions. These institutions have completely stopped all visits so you can’t even go in and calling some of these people can be difficult so sometimes there are some clients that we haven’t been able to talk to or we’ve only been able to talk to maybe once a month.”

He claims not meeting with people face to face “makes it difficult to maintain engagement, to keep people willing to participate, willing to continue to work towards already agreed upon objectives”. The technologies used, such as meeting on Zoom, Facetime or over the phone, make it harder for individuals to be willing to continue with their program.

Not being able to meet is a big disadvantage in Awale’s work during the pandemic but he also realizes that some people he is helping don’t need the same things they used to. “It’s shifted some of the goals. Some of them have lost their jobs, so it used to be about ‘let’s get you into school’, or ‘let’s get you some therapy’, but now it’s like ‘let’s just maintain’. How do we make sure that you’re getting your daily necessities in order to just go through this pandemic ?”

“The reality is that some individuals are more severely impacted by this public health crisis than others and we must be mindful of that. What do the participants that I’m working with, what do they need ?”

What it takes for this job

Clearly, being a caseworker is not for everyone and the challenges they face can be hard to manage on a professional level, but also on a personal one.

“You have to be open, you have to be willing to hear some things that you’re going to completely disagree with and just be like OK this is what you think, you think that all black people should go back to Africa”, Awale calmly explains, being a person of colour himself. “Folks will share things and ideas that they have or views that they have about the world and completely in your head you’re like ‘this is insane’ but you still have to maintain your calm.”

“The work that we do is not light, it’s a lot of heavy conversations, so it’s important to make sure that you are taking care of yourself.”

Divergent views are always present in this kind of work, but a caseworker can’t be offended by that or judge an individual. “Even after they disengage completely from any form of violence, they might hold some prejudiced views and it is what it is.”

Article written by Marguerite Chiarello, undergraduate student in journalism at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

BY 404mag

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