Ayan Mohamed, the first in her family to go to college, credits Kent Youth and Family Services and its after-school program for helping her when she struggled as a young child in school.

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Ayan Mohamed’s parents never talked much about the hardship of fleeing their home country of Somalia during the civil strife there in the 1990s.

They coped with the trauma of their refugee experience and the culture shock of resettling in the United States as asylum-seekers the way many Somalis do, by getting on with life and counting their blessings with a simple Arabic refrain common among Muslims, “Alhamdulillah,” or “Praise be to Allah.”

“They don’t go too deep into it, their story,” the 19-year-old Mohamed says. “They’d rather see the light than see the darkness … It taught me resilience.”

Surely, Mohamed herself is a light for her family.

A sophomore at the University of Washington who commutes to school in North Seattle from her family’s home in Kent, she’s the first in the household to go to college.

“I’m getting an education now; I’ve got clothes on my back; I have the life that they always envisioned for me,” Mohamed says. “The sacrifices that they made I will never be able to repay.”

University of Washington student Ayan Mohammed studies in the Suzzallo Library on campus. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
University of Washington student Ayan Mohammed studies in the Suzzallo Library on campus. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)

Mohamed also credits Kent Youth and Family Services (KYFS), one of 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, for helping her along the road to academic success.

Covering Kent, Covington and South King County, and founded more than 40 years ago, the nonprofit organization offers a range of programs in its multicultural service area, including early-childhood education, mental-health and substance-abuse counseling, homelessness-prevention programs, and a support group for teens who identify as LGBTQ.

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The organization has a major presence among the immigrant populations of the South End, including the Somali community.

Mohamed started using the organization’s after-school program at the age of 5 and continued to benefit from its services through high school.

As an elementary-school student, Mohamed struggled with her class work and she remembers teachers telling her that she wouldn’t go very far in life if she didn’t improve.

Rather than get discouraged, Mohamed took these harsh assessments as a personal challenge. By working with the tutors at KYFS, particularly on her math lessons, Mohamed says she found her voice as a student and learned to speak up for herself and advocate for her own education.

When she got worn down or unsure of herself, the tutors helped to keep her motivated. But Mohamed’s a fighter, not the type to give up easily.

“Once I started high school, I challenged myself to prove people wrong,” Mohamed says.

She did well enough to earn not just a high-school diploma but an Associate of Arts degree for completing advanced classes for college credit.

In the ninth grade for a class project, Mohamed’s mother finally told Mohamed at length about her arduous experience as a refugee from Somalia in the 1990s.

Mohamed was born in the United States several years after her mom and dad immigrated here separately, became a couple and got married.

After learning about what it took for both of them to make their journeys, then start a new life together in America, Mohamed knew she couldn’t squander her academic potential.

She vowed to take advantage of every opportunity that came her way to honor the sacrifice they made to create stability for her and her siblings.

It was during that school year that Mohamed decided to become a doctor.

University of Washington student Ayan Mohammed walks down the Suzzallo Library stairs at the UW. After learning of her parents’ struggles as Somali refugees, she vowed to take advantage of every opportunity that came her way to honor their sacrifices. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
University of Washington student Ayan Mohammed walks down the Suzzallo Library stairs at the UW. After learning of her parents’ struggles as Somali refugees, she vowed to take advantage of every opportunity that came her way to honor their sacrifices. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)

At the UW, Mohamed is taking classes in preparation for applying to medical school, as well as required courses for a public-health major. Her goal is to become a doctor in part so she can open a hospital in Somalia.

She wants to give back to the nation of her parents’ birth, a country that has existed in a state of instability, if not outright conflict, for a generation. Drought is also a major issue there.

According to the International Medical Corps, health-care facilities are highly limited in Somalia, one in seven children under age 5 suffers from malnutrition, the life expectancy is only 56 and the infant-mortality rate is one of the highest in the world.

Facilities are so bad that people often have to travel overseas for surgeries and transplants, she says.

Already Mohamed has given back by working as a teaching assistant with young children at KYFS during high school. That gave her the chance to help fellow Somali kids and families from the same low-income immigrant community she grew up in.

And as the eldest daughter in her family, she is performing the traditional role of helping out around the family home when not in class.

She also works as a program assistant for a UW-run clinic that offers services to the homeless.

Mohamed says KYFS staff and volunteers taught her not to limit herself, and they’ve given her the right tools to pursue her dreams.

“They help steer us onto a good path and then they help us at every step of the way,” Mohamed says. “It’s like these are milestones for both of us — they’ve seen us grow up. It’s a sense that we’re all in this together — kind of like a family.”

Whatever insecurity she might have harbored as a young girl seems to have vanished.

Mohamed is the picture of confidence.

“Once you find your voice, you can go far in life,” she says now.