by Kamna Shastri
As an immigrant, it can be grating and alienating to go about your daily life without hearing the familiar lilt of your mother tongue. When you have moved to the United States to escape war or political instability and are trying to put down roots, it’s as important to retain a connection to your community as it is to make inroads into this new culture. This was the case for Sahra Farah, founder and director of Somali Community Services (SCS) of Seattle, based in Renton.
Farah left Somalia before civil war broke out in 1991. Prior to that time, Somali immigrants had mostly come to the U.S. as students and professional workers. As the conflict in Somalia escalated, sending a new wave of refugees to the United States, informal mutual aid networks burgeoned to help new arrivals access resources and settle down in a foreign country. SCS started as one of these informal networks and then went on to become a registered non-profit.
Farah remembers feeling lonely and felt that something was missing. As she came to meet other Somali immigrants and refugees, she realized she was not alone. A Somali community was slowly putting down roots in Seattle and Farah could see that there were so many needs, from language access to navigating social services.
“I chose to come to the community because I see a lot of elders, a lot of people who have the language barriers that don’t have no place to go,” she said.
Farah founded Somali Community Services in 1995 and spent her evenings working with the community. Surrounded by the language and culture, that thing that had felt missing was reignited.
“I got my language back too, culture back, everything, because I see people that I grew up with and it makes the people happy,” she said.
Based in South King County, SCS is adjacent to the Rainier Valley, Tukwila, and other cities with large Somali populations. Somali is the second most common language spoken among all bilingual students in the Seattle Public Schools system.
SCS offers a number of programs for the Somali community, especially newly arrived immigrants and refugees. Their 25-year legacy makes them well equipped to extend their expertise to other immigrants and refugees as well. Farah says they will extend a hand to anyone who comes through the door looking for help.
The organization’s regular program includes a long roster of offerings. Their lunch program for elders, which began in 2002, helps keep elders connected to one another and provides a space for them to learn new skills such as community safety basics. Youth programs and after-school tutoring programs provide young people with enrichment opportunities and support to access jobs, housing, and other stepping-stones that can help them become self-dependent. ESL classes and citizenship education classes are on offer, and SCS is also home to a young men’s basketball team.
During the pandemic, Farah says that they’ve continued to offer all these programs and more even though using a virtual Zoom structure has been challenging at times. On Saturdays, SCS has been offering a parent “living-room support” program where staff help parents understand how to use Zoom with their children for engagements like school and extracurriculars. Staff help parents get oriented with the basics of remote learning and using Zoom and help troubleshoot when questions and challenges arise.
Another program that began during the pandemic aims to bring youth inspiration and guidance to face their fears. “Kids, especially teenagers … they need a role model,” said Farah. She says youth are often looking for community and opportunities, jobs, and housing. When it’s hard to find those resources as a young adult, things can get stressful and youth struggle to get their needs met. Farah says that the community center can be a place where young people can come and find a staff that is willing to problem solve with them.
“If you don’t have a budget to support you, at least we can find something as a solution,” said Farah.
Throughout the organization’s 27- plus years, the Seattle Foundation’s Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) program has been an appreciative supporter. “They’ve been helping us for a long time, and I cannot forget how they lifted us, especially when we were down,” said Farah.
With N2N’s support, SCS has spearheaded an effort to encourage generative connections between the police department and the Somali community. Last September, Seattle Chief of Police Adrian Diaz attended a town hall with the Somali community to understand specific concerns.
For Somali families without a broader family network and language barriers, interactions with law enforcement can feel uncomfortable — even scary and threatening. Farah says many families didn’t know what to say to police or how to interact with them. Facilitating outreach events began to change things. Farah says that now police will come to the doors of Somali families to do casual wellness checks and ask if they need any support. And if a family is in need of help, officers will call Farah so she can rally staff at SCS to provide culturally relevant assistance to families who need it.
In the last year and a half, COVID-19 has affected families of all backgrounds and communities. This was no different for the Somali community. With a $25,000 grant from the Seattle Foundation, SCS was able to distribute food, help community members fill in PPP applications and grants, provide cash aid, equip students with laptops and internet connections, and provide online tutoring and support groups for parents, as well as several other emergency services.
“We accomplish a lot of stuff, and we still continue to do more,” said Farah. She reiterates that SCS is for anyone who wants to strengthen their community and their families, especially for those people who don’t have other support systems. After almost three decades, SCS is still going strong and has supported a generation of Somali refugees and immigrants in the Seattle area.
“It’s a blessing … that we can make the community … proud of it,” she said.
This is the sixth of a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center, and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Somali Community Services of Seattle.
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