Akim Aliu was surprised to learn his grandfather, who he considers his best friend, didn’t wish to hold his brother, Edward, when he was a baby because he was Black.
“It was very difficult to place that within the book due to present relationship … he did a lot for us growing up,” Aliu said in an interview with the Star.
That is certainly one of the numerous painful memories he shares in his recent graphic memoir “Dreamer: Growing up Black within the World of Hockey,” written with Greg Anderson Alysée and illustrated by Karen De La Vega.
The previous left-winger for the Calgary Flames, Aliu’s memoir tells the story of his family, his racialized experience within the NHL and the way this experience curtailed what might have been a long-lasting profession.
“Dreamer” captures the experience of coping with generational racism and xenophobia. Aliu tells the Star he hopes sharing his own experience will help create a greater future for the following generation and arm young readers with the understanding they aren’t alone.
“I built this book for youths from age eight to fifteen or 16. I feel in those years you learn a lot and it shapes you into the person you change into,” Aliu said. When asked why he felt a graphic memoir was the most effective solution to tell his story, Aliu said he believed our “tender years” are of utmost importance.
The memoir traces Aliu’s family’s early experiences, his father, Tai, who’s Black, meeting Larissa Khrebet, Aliu’s white, Ukrainian mother and falling in love. Tai, from Nigeria, was attending university on a scholarship for track and field and academics. They faced resistance and racism from her family — only an aunt attended their wedding — and inside the Russian (on the time) society.
Tai was detained by police and held in a Russian prison in 1995, having done nothing improper except “refusing to offer up his passport and neglecting to bribe those lovely, upstanding officers,” Aliu writes.
“Your refusal to cooperate with us as we do our job is what you will have done improper, Mr. Africa,” a police officer said to Tai.
The incident triggers Tai and Larissa to maneuver, first to Nigeria, where Larissa faced sexism, relocating back to Russia, where they faced more racism — and eventually reconciliation with Larissa’s father. They then make it to Canada, where the family would settle and Aliu’s NHL story began.
Aliu has remained outspoken on several racist incidents faced throughout his hockey profession. He recounts his initial excitement after being signed to the Windsor Spitfires, to the emotional letdown after being called the N-word by a former teammate. There was an inquiry after a hazing incident where Aliu and another teammates were forced to go nude into a rest room behind a team bus. Three weeks after that incident, a former teammate reportedly knocked out seven of Aliu’s teeth during practice. Aliu recounts other incidents, as well, some involving his former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters.
While Aliu recalled these incidents, he also gives a nod to allies and heroes, including his late teammate and friend Mickey Renaud, who stood up for Aliu against their former coach.
Within the memoir, Aliu recounts his mother, Larissa, saying he must have chosen the trail of an expert soccer player — a sport she felt he would have fared much better in.
“I give it some thought on a regular basis; I used to be way higher at soccer than hockey, (and) I used to be a first-round pick to (the) OHL,” Aliu said between laughter to the Star.
But soccer in Canada 15 to 18 years ago was not as high-profile because it is today, he said, and opportunities to compete in Europe were fewer.
“I can’t guess how I’d have done but I believe of it on a regular basis. All the pieces happens for a reason. I’m where I’m today to pave a solution to the longer term,” Aliu said.
In 2020, Aliu and 6 other energetic and former NHL players launched the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) — geared toward creating equitable programs to finish systemic racism in hockey — and established his own organization titled the Time to Dream Foundation in the identical 12 months. In June 2022, Aliu and the HDA announced a program dedicated to creating hockey accessible to children from diverse and under-represented communities — or paving the way in which as Aliu put it.
“Very first thing I all the time say is it’s very difficult to empathize with something you don’t understand or never went through. Empathy is walking hand in hand with someone and what they went through,” Aliu said to the Star.
“I’d love people to teach themselves a bit bit more, rise up while you’re seeing things which might be unjust. It isn’t just people of color that may help us recover from this hump, we’d like everybody,” Aliu concluded.