Photo depicting four children wearing headscarves and holding Somali bilingual children's books in front of their faces.

Somali Family Safety Task Force Teaches Somali Through Storybooks

by Amanda Ong

For the past seven years, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, which is based out of New Holly, where a significant portion of the Somali community lives, has been providing Somali and other East African families with resources around career, education, and personal development. What many people don’t know is that the Task Force is just as invested in preserving connections to Somali language and culture. Since 2017, they have published eight books aimed at Somali American families to practice reading and writing in Somali. The latest five Somali/English bilingual children’s storybooks, which had their book launch in January, were created by the Task Force with the support of Best Starts for Kids.

“We did our first book on the alphabet,” Farhiya Mohamed, founder of the Somali Family Safety Task Force, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “We wrote with community members, so the children will come to read and write in their own language. Some of the kids are born here, and then they never read or write in [Somali].”

The board books are made for the youngest of readers, with thick cardboard pages for easier handling for tiny hands. The Somali Alphabet Book, Baro Af-Somaali, was published in 2017 as the first of three board books: Alphabet Book, Numbers, and Animals, and five other storybooks published by the Task Force and also aimed at Somali American families. Each hardcover book features bright colors, engaging illustrations of alligators and elephants, and Somali language titles. Written with input from a committee of local Somali families, the books teach children how to read in Somali and also contain English translations. 

“These stories were created with Somali elders in the community,” Mohammad Ismail, a program manager with the Somali Family Task Force, said to the South Seattle Emerald. “And the purpose was to engage the community … so they would come every week and have a discussion about their ideas. So it took a while for the staff to write the stories. And then after that, for the illustration for the books, we found a couple of people [in Seattle], but [the illustrator] had to be someone Somali. We searched all over the country and found a Somali cartoonist [Amin Amir] in Canada.”

Photo depicting Farhiya Mohamed wearing a yellow headscarf while seated at a promotional table with all the Somali children's books.
The original idea for publishing Somali language books came from the Task Force’s founder Farhiya Mohamed, pictured here, who previously worked at The Seattle Public Library and saw a need for more representation for Somali books and resources for Somali language learning. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsen/Somali Family Safety Task Force)

Mohamed started the Task Force in 2015 to provide domestic violence education for the community. She was troubled by the resistance to report domestic violence in fear of deportation. She was also previously a project coordinator for The Seattle Public Library.

“When I was working [at the library] I told them how the refugees and immigrants, especially in my community, are losing language,” Mohamed said. “I told them where is the Somali book section? I kept saying when I get free time maybe I have to make a couple of books for kids to listen to their language.” 

Mohamed set up a program at the library for Somali women to read to the children weekly, starting in New Holly and expanding to High Point, Rainier Beach, and Lake City. In 2017, The Seattle Public Library and Seattle Public Schools approached the Task Force to partner on a summer project for children. Mohammed suggested creating Somali/English children’s books. That led to the creation of the three board books — Alphabet Book, Numbers, and Animals. Local Somali children made the artwork. The board books were published in partnership with The Seattle Public Library and Seattle Public Schools, with help from the Seattle Housing Authority.

In addition to the board books, the five new storybooks, Hana and Harun, Gaba and Gabareey, Dadaalaa Wuu Gaaraa, Geel and Maroodi, and Daanyeerkii Caqliga Badnaa, come with an audio component, so readers can hear Somali being spoken. The audiobook component was an intentional one, as many elders in the community might not have had a chance to attend formal schooling, and therefore have lower rates of literacy. The audiobook is a way of also reaching them and the community at all levels of literacy, so that elders can enjoy learning and teaching Somali language skills along with youth.

“And there’s weekly and ongoing programs for seniors as well … So there’s parenting, digital literacy, ESL classes, advocacy, all of these kinds of classes, projects, and programs that are helping the whole family,” Sarah Jacobsen, development coordinator at the Somali Family Safety Task Force, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “They’re using the language and culture and art and tradition of Somalia to help strengthen families, integrate into the community, but also keep that culture alive. And there’s also a strong value on elders, and on women’s voices, which are more marginalized members of the community.” 

Photo depicting the cover of four Somali storybooks with one opened to a page with an illustration and text.
The five new storybooks that were released this January feature illustrations by Somali Canadian cartoonist Amin Amir as well as bilingual text. Each book also offers an audiobook component to listen along. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsen/Somali Family Safety Task Force)

The concept of these storybooks carries with it a clear image: The Task Force guides the community’s mothers to come together to create books for their children to learn their mother tongue. Those mothers go on to read these books side by side with their children, strengthening their bond with each other as well as their language. And perhaps even the mother’s own mothers join them in learning how to read together. 

“A lot of parents are worried about their kids losing their identity, and this is just to strengthen the community,” Ismail said. “This demand came from the community, it was not our project. It was coming from the community, they were the ones who really wanted it.”

The Somali Family Safety Task Force looks forward to creating, writing, and publishing more books. In the meantime, they hope to expand to more libraries and to raise funds to create more stories. You can learn more about opportunities to work with the Somali Family Safety Task Force on their website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: While the Somali Family Safety Task Force’s previous board books were made for toddlers and kindergarteners to learn Somali, they released five new storybooks in January aimed at early elementary school students. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsen/Somali Family Safety Task Force)

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