A Somali American pioneer challenges her community
Sahra Farah, Director of Somali Community Services of Seattle.
In Sahra Farah’s memories, Mogadishu is a city of wonders with gorgeous beaches and beautiful people. She still doesn’t accept that the place she grew up has been destroyed by years of civil war.
She says that because of the war, a lot of young Somali Americans (like me) don’t have any idea of the way Somalia was. She hopes the city that’s closest to her heart someday gets back to being that “paradise on Earth” that she remembers.
Farah is a leader in the Somali community in the Seattle area. She moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. She counts running Somali Community Services of Seattle for twenty plus years without ever giving up as her biggest accomplishment.
A musician, cultural Somali dancer, volleyball player, and basketball player, she has a lot to offer — though she admits she still likes to sleep every once in awhile.
Yes, I know. She’s pretty awesome.
When I interviewed her in her office in Rainier Beach she responded to some of my questions in Somali. Lucky for me, I can understand it pretty well – I could tell she was trying to put me to the test!
Here’s what she said (with the Somali sections translated):
How did you adapt to living in a new country?
It was a tough time. I was in a small town [in Pennsylvania]. There weren’t any black people there. I really missed my language and my people. I was feeling really lonely. I wouldn’t speak Somali. I would only speak English. I knew I was missing something, but I didn’t know what it was.
When you come here knowing Somali, it’s easy for you to learn about a new country and new culture. But when you’re trying to learn two different cultures at the same time, that’s really tough.
What made you want to start working with the Somali Community?
One day I was looking for anyone that could help with doing school paperwork for my children, and I didn’t get any help. I went to the library and did it all myself. After that, I said we needed a center or office that would help other people who were new to this country. That was 1993. We made a strong community center where Somali people can get help.
What is your vision for your organization five years from today?
I hope young people like you can come and take over so I can retire! That’s what I’m hoping. I’m just waiting to train a lot of young people. I want young people to come forward and say, ‘Hey! This is our time!’ and are honest and give their hearts to want to help change their communities.
What’s it like being a woman leader in a community that some outsiders might think of as being male-dominated?
It depends on how you treat other people. Thanks to my community they never let me down, I see a lot of males who support me. In my community, I don’t see anybody pushing me down because I am a female. A lot of times they say, “she’s a leader!”
I remember one lady came to me, an American lady, and said, “Sahra, why does your country not accept female presidents?” And I said, “how about your country? Are they accepting? I don’t think so.”
What do you enjoy doing mostly outside of work?
I’m with my grandkids most of the time, but I like to just rest. Most of the time I go outside with my family. I go and play basketball, or volleyball with my kids…or sleep all day! But if I sleep all day, I would keep going back to the kitchen to eat something, so I avoid that and take a shower then go outside. It’s very healthy!
What are the biggest issues or challenges facing Seattle’s Somali community?
We don’t seek to help one another. The government expects the community is helping you, and the community expects the government is helping you. So the community sometimes comes right in between that. What we need is to believe we can do it ourselves, and that’s what I do. When you say, ‘yes I can do it’, you can change things, but if you’re always waiting for someone else to help you, you can never do it. And our people, when somebody does something, they always try to do it after them. They would never say, ‘can I help you, can I do it with you?’
If I have a meeting where I’m doing some kind of project or grant, you’re not going to see a lot of Somalis there. Instead, you’ll see a lot of non-Somalis there who want to help the Somali people. So sometimes in a meeting, when I see Somalis, I get so happy to see them doing something to help people, to connect with the community.
I know what Farah means — I’ve witnessed situations like this myself, where Somalis won’t take part in helping an organization grow, but instead create a rivaling organization with the same exact mission. Sahra said she wishes that her fellow Somalis would collaborate in making a better Somali community in Seattle.
I was inspired to hear Sahra say she wants the youth to come forward and realize that it’s their time — to put their hearts into helping change their community.
I think we can do it.