Just before his 18th birthday, Mohamed Shidane arrived in Seattle alone. He’d fled civil war in Somalia for the U.S. without his parents. But not long after touching down in the Pacific Northwest, he had a maternal figure in his life—Sahra Farah, the director of Somali Community Services of Seattle, better known to many as Mama Sahra.
For almost 27 years Farah has helmed a nonprofit with a laundry list of services and outsize influence. Only the Minneapolis and Columbus metros can claim more Somali residents than the Seattle area. Like recent influxes of Ukrainians and Afghans, Somali refugees arrived in droves here after civil war broke out in their homeland during the early 1990s. An informal network of support begat a center in Rainier Valley now providing everything from housing assistance to Zoom guidance. Other organizations offer similar programs. But only one, Shidane stresses, can tout the patient leadership of Mama. “That’s so missing,” the now-deputy director of King County–based Somali Health Board says.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Farah juggled unscheduled requests from walk-ins between meetings at the one-story building on Renton Avenue South. A deaf man needed help filling out immigration papers, someone else assistance with a child support form. Farah gave him her card and instructed him to call her should any translation needs arise at the government office. The former forklift operator and bus driver wore a placid expression beneath a blue hijab, even after discussing the challenges of running a nonprofit with scant funding. A grant to help 46 families in debt was still pending. “The problem is the housing’s so expensive.”
While Somali refugees originally settled in Seattle proper, a boom in home prices has scattered the diaspora to burbs like Tukwila and SeaTac, where an East African international mall opened last year. Community organizations haven’t secured enough low-income housing for Somalis to afford rent in Seattle, says Mohamud Yussuf, chief editor and publisher of local Somali media outlet Runta News. “We are pushed out.”
And when they are, they often dial Mama. Farah regularly receives calls late at night from those seeking places to sleep. If they can’t find shelter by 10pm, she and others at Somali Community Services search for open motel rooms. “We have to make sure they’re not on the street.”
Mama Sahra has always managed to keep the door open to the community, says Shidane. Shortly after arriving in the Pacific Northwest, he was driving through Rainier Valley when he heard children singing a Somali folk song outside Somali Community Services. He quickly took to its youth and arts programs, honing his poetry and putting himself through college. “I literally grew up there.”
Along with Farah, he also helped grow the nonprofit’s Somali Independence Day festival. Every July 1 or thereabouts, families have flocked to a closed-off street in Rainier Valley to celebrate Somalia’s liberation in 1960 with camel rides and henna art. Even suburban exodus couldn’t stop the community from coming together in Seattle. Then Covid hit, and though Farah feels better about the state of things, the event may not return this summer in full force.
The isolation concerns her. Refugees carry trauma Farah hasn’t experienced herself—she arrived in the U.S. before the civil war—but she knows they need a base camp for combatting their disorientation. A resource binder with 250 pages of guidance and clipart sits near the front of the center for newcomers to reference. Old-
timers often stop by for free lunch on Wednesdays. The two-decade tradition includes some gift-giving (bags of basmati rice and boxes of dates for one pre-Ramadan gathering) and lots of catching up. They enter sleepy and leave chatty, Farah says.
Her friends often ask if she’ll ever leave the nonprofit’s vicinity to join them in one of Washington’s increasingly Somali suburbs. “No,” she says. “I’m going to pull you guys back to Seattle.”
Asking rents have more than doubled since 2014, the first year of the Zillow Observed Rent Index, in the 98118 zip code of Southeast Seattle.
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