A push for Somali language classes at UW

A montage of words written in Somali and English, seen on the onecityproject.org website.
A montage of words written in Somali and English, seen on the onecityproject.org website.

When you think about filling that pesky foreign language requirement, what comes to mind? Spanish? French? German? Maybe Mandarin?

Whatever it is, it’s probably not Somali — the language of millions of people in the East African country and the Somali diaspora around the globe.

“You can grow up in Seattle, you could be born here, go to K-12 here, go to the UW — you could live a full adult life and you’ve never heard the words ‘Somali’ and ‘class’ together,” says John Compton of the One City Project, a non-profit devoted to connecting people in our region with the languages spoken in their communities.

And while there has been at least one other basic Somali language course on offer in recent years (for service providers working in the Somali community) there are currently no formal courses offered in the Pacific Northwest, despite the fact that our region boasts one of the largest Somali-American populations in the country.

But that’s about to change. A ten week Intermediate and Advance Somali course for heritage speakers (people of Somali background) as well as non-Somali community members will begin next week through the Experimental College — a student organization that offers non-credit courses for University of Washington students as well as community members.

“There’s never been a chance for us to sit down and to learn how to read and write, [how to] write articles, how to translate things, how to communicate in a professional setting,” says Nazmah Hasaan, an Environmental Health major and member of the UW Somali Student Association.

“Even though we’re heritage speakers, when we look at a document it’s like we’re first graders where you have to sound everything out,” agrees Nawal Ahmed a Pre-nursing major at the UW eager to interpret in medical settings.

Hasaan and Ahmed have worked with Compton and the Somali Student Association to help make the non-credit course a reality. Next step: they’re pitching the campus’ Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity on the importance of a for-credit Somali language course at the University.

And while they’re still waiting to hear back on that proposal, they hope the Experimental College class, which currently has 38 enrolled students, will be a first step toward proving the need for such a course.

They say formal Somali language instruction at the UW would help to train teachers and service providers who work with Somali populations, and encourage a new generation of Somali-Americans to keep the language of their parents alive.

“I brought my culture and my language here and I want to leave it for my kids,” says Dualeh Hersi, a program manager at Amazon who has also helped advocate for Somali language instruction on the UW campus and will be teaching the course beginning next week. Hersi says it’s been challenging getting materials together for such an infrequently taught language, but that he’s planning to use what he’s found to build an online database of Somali-language-learning resources.

“It’s going to be a trial run,” says Hersi of the upcoming course, “But hopefully this will be the moment when things start to change.”

University of Washington student Michael "Renaissance" Moynihan leads a chant as a Black Lives Matter demonstration disrupts a UW Race and Equity Initiative event at Intellectual House on Tuesday. Recent incidents involving students of African descent and UW police have increased tensions. (Photo by Venice Buhain)
University of Washington student Michael “Renaissance” Moynihan leads a chant as a Black Lives Matter demonstration disrupts a UW Race and Equity Initiative event at Intellectual House on Tuesday. Recent incidents involving students of African descent and UW police have increased tensions. (Photo by Venice Buhain)

A movement to bring Somali language instruction at the UW comes at a moment of larger discussions, and protests, over race, diversity and a representation on campus.

“The Somali population specifically is a population of refugees often settled in low income communities,” says Hasaan. “It’s kind of daunting and new for us to be first generation students from low income backgrounds from uneducated parents… Having this class would make it feel like, ‘You deserve to be here.’”

It’s a lot of pressure for one no-credit class, but it’s that important says Hersi, who mingles the political and cultural implications of such a course alongside a passion for a language he says blends beauty and wisdom.

“The Somali language is poetry,” he says to me in the lobby of the downtown Amazon building where he works.

“Aqoon la’aani waa Iftiin la’aan,” he texted me later, “To be without knowledge is to be without light.”

What university would disagree with that?

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.