Nafiso Samatar: Education Is Everything

British and Italian occupations of Somalia ended after World War II, and the country experienced several decades of independence and relative stability until civil war broke out in 1991. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled outside the borders, and the country was so destabilized that it was without a permanent government until 2012. Nafiso left Somalia not long before the war began.

I left Somalia when I was twelve. I had to travel at a young age to support my young siblings. [I was the oldest of] seven younger kids and our mom passed away.

I pushed [my uncle] to come to Italy. He get a visa for me, then I travel to Kenya. Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to travel to Italy, so I had to remain [in Kenya]. One year later, the civil war started. I become a refugee, I was living in a refugee camp called Dika. 

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Young Nafiso pregnant with her oldest son, Kenya

I stayed there for couple of years, with friends and relatives. The culture we have is you can get married at the age of fourteen, it’s not shame. So one of our relatives arrange a marriage with a man who came back from Italy. When you’re young, everything is possible. Suddenly, I find out I was pregnant. But he left me there.

It’s not shame that you get married at a young age, but when you’re young and you get married and your husband leaves you and you don’t know what to do with the child, you’re a child with a child.

[We came to the U.S. when my son was] two and I was sixteen. It was a tough life. I couldn’t manage. I went to Phoenix, Arizona. I didn’t know nobody, it was scary. The community was small, only two Somali families. It was not easy to just join the new culture and live easily. 

I was always thinking – every second, every minute, every moment – about family that I left behind. How I should send money back home so they can make sure to eat and survive. I thought a lot about my sisters, because I did not want them to get married at a young age or suffer through their life. I wanted them to come here as soon as possible.

I found my family through friends and relatives. When the war happen, it was 1990, and the rest of the family had to just run to Ethiopia, to Kenya, and other neighbor countries they could reach. [Later] I sponsor them, and lucky to me, my brothers and sisters are here in Seattle today. We live together again. We have each other.  


 When I came to Seattle, I had to [figure out how to] bring my family [from Kenya]. For them to go through that process, I had to send money. So I had to go to Alaska to work. I thought it would be opportunity for me to make quick money, doing fish processing. It was first time I’ve ever been to cold place.

When I left to go to Alaska, I left my son with a friend. We didn’t have a big community like now, [with] people who know the process what you should do when you leave your child, [like] sign some piece of paper saying, ‘I give permission to such a person to take care of my son while I’m gone.’ I didn’t sign that, I just ask her to take care of my son.

[After] I was there for one month, I receive a call saying, ‘your son was taken from the person you left him with.’ Child Protective Service came, and the police, and they took him. He was 3 and half. The neighbor called police and say, ‘This boy was out always, just running around.’ Where we came from, it was okay to play outside. Neither of us recognize about the rules and regulations in US to follow. So the police came, and say, ‘Where’s the mom?’ [My friend] say, ‘I’m his mom.’ [They asked her to] show ID, [but] she’s not the mother; what are they going to say? They didn’t want to hear the excuse. And they took him.

So I return to Seattle, then I go to California because that’s where I left my son with my friend. They say, ‘We won’t give your son unless you go to school; you have to go to parent education. How could you leave your son without signing a paper saying, I’m going to leave my son with a nanny?’ I say, ‘What is nanny?’ I was so surprised! I say, ‘My mama never signed that.’ They say, ‘This is not Africa honey, this is America.’ So I had to go to parenting class learning the rules and regulations. They allow me to visit him every Saturday. Six months in California to go to school. And after six months, when we finish everything, I get my son and we return to Seattle. 

From that day, I knew the consequences. I thought, I need to go to school and I need to educate Somali women to learn not to lose their kids. So I start school from that day [to] learn more about parent education. We think we know how to raise kids but we don’t know. They have a name for it, ‘Oh, you neglect your child!’ That was the first time I learn that word. You neglect your child, you abuse your child, there’s like 200 names. How come we didn’t learn this when we first arrive? [They should say] ‘you are a young woman, you have a child, this is parenting class.’ Why DSHS, when they give you the money benefits to live until you get along and get a job, why didn’t they give us the parenting class?

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Nafiso with students from Guiding Good Choices, a program that teaches young mothers to protect their parenting in the US.

I became active to [help] Somali parents who don’t know the rules and regulations, [to prevent] what happened to me from happening to them. I worked as a volunteer with Child Protective Service for about a year to help when they make decision for when child return home, so I could learn all those rules and regulations and explain them to the community. 

I worked at Refugee Women’s Alliance supporting the parents to get a place to live as soon as possible to return child. [CPS] remove kids from their parent house, so when they giving the child back to the parent and they have custody again, they should have a safe place to live, provide food for the child. I was doing it because it was something coming from my heart, because I knew how tough it was. Today I’m a trainer. I work Tukwila, I work Seattle, I work with Neighborhood House. I educate parent to have a great relationship with their kids, and prevent [pre-teens] not to start drugs. The whole purpose why I’m doing this because what happened to me. I don’t want anyone else to suffer what I suffer.


[Later on] I worked with the City of Seattle, Office for Civil Rights, for about a year, teaching minority women how to protect themselves from discrimination, know their rights. When the job ended, I had my mind to go back home and visit my country. I didn’t just want to go back without a plan. My goal was to learn how to work with my people, come back to my country. I was so excited.

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Chamber of Commerce program in central Somalia

I worked with [public relations for the Somali prime minister] for about a year. I wanted to work with the business people because I wanted to make change, so I switch my position to Chamber of Commerce. I became head of department of women with business, the whole region.  

Women is breadwinner back home now. Doesn’t mean men don’t work, but because the country will not have stable job, women had to do the business. Everywhere you go you will see a woman doing something. So I wanted women to come together and support each other. The World Bank and ILO [International Labor Organization] were going to Somalia, and looking for opportunity to help women. So I used to bring [women] together by sectors and connect to the Chamber, so they can have the opportunity to work with the ILO and the World Bank. I worked with them for a couple of years, and then I return last July [to Seattle]. 

Nafiso06It was tough [to go back to Somalia.] I only know few people when I get there. And then also, I was not same culture. I was like somebody who comes from United States, has belief and different culture but wanted to work as a Somali woman. So men and I used to have a lot of fights, because what they believe and my belief is a little bit different! Here [in the US], I believe I’m a Somali woman. We understand each other, the Somali who are in America. But back there, everything I feel, the way I thought about it, the way I was doing things, it’s just U.S. way. They think we are returning home and taking their jobs, and we have to explain, ‘We did not come here to take your position, we come here to support you guys. We have to lift you up to come back to a normal life that we had before the war started.’ But the good thing is they understand. I think if I go back now, I’ll do better.

 What I like about America, you can be yourself. The two things I’m so proud of myself is, one, I brought my family, and second, I continued my education.

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Nafiso with her daughter and nieces

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