Sabah Saed works with Kent Family Center preschool children during their lunch in Kent. Saed started as a parent volunteer working in the preschool program and now is an assistant teacher. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Katherine Long | January 1, 2017
When Sabah Saed was growing up in Somalia, her family imparted two essential values to live by: the importance of hard work and a good education.
Her father was a police officer, and her mother ran her own small business. So when Saed and her husband fled the war-ravaged country in 1996, those were the values she held dear.
But life in the U.S. was wildly different from life in Somalia. A simple thing like a trip to the grocery store, with its busy aisles and checkout lines, was nothing like shopping at an open-air market in Mogadishu. Everything about the U.S. was confusing.
In the 1990s, the nonprofit that serves families in the Kent area stretched its mission to help refugee families settle in the U.S.
The 46-year-old agency gives help to about 6,000 young people and their families each year; about a fifth of those served are immigrants and refugees. It is one of 12 groups benefiting this season from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
For Saed, KYFS meant everything from preschool for her children to classes in English. Eventually, it meant a job.
“There is this American phrase: You give a man a fish, you feed him for a day,” Saed says. “You teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
She says of the Kent agency: “They taught me how to fish.”
Saed and her husband came to Kent in 1999 because a cousin lived there, and told her it was a good place to raise a family.
When they moved here, after living a few years in New York, Saed enrolled her then- 4-year-old daughter, Fadumo Abdirahman, in the Head Start/Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. The preschool program is taught at the Kent Family Center at Birch Creek, one of three facilities the agency operates.
Not content to just drop her daughter off, Saed became a daily volunteer at the preschool. When the classes ended, she took English as a Second Language courses there.
KYFS employees helped her and her husband with other things, such as figuring out how to buy a house. And soon, the preschool recognized what a good teacher their gregarious, warmhearted volunteer would make, said Theresa LaRonde, director of the Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program Center.
When an opening for a part-time teacher came up, she was hired.
“Sabah has always been passionate about giving back to her community, and lives that in her work and community life,” LaRonde said.
Over the years, her steadily expanding family of eight children all started their preschool years at the center, and they are thriving in school.
Saed is especially proud of her daughters. Fadumo is a junior at the University of Washington, where she’s double-majoring in engineering and informatics. She’ll be the first girl in the family to earn a college degree.
Safia, Saed’s third daughter, is a straight-A student in Running Start, the dual-credit program offered to high-school students by area community colleges. Safia dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a doctor.
The youngest boys love to write, and Fadumo has introduced them to computer coding. A daughter in middle school has a passion for social justice, and Saed’s second-oldest daughter loves the social sciences.
Rewards of giving back
KYFS offers services ranging from counseling to education and other support, and it runs on a tight margin, said Executive Director Michael Heinisch. The nonprofit has either a small surplus or a deficit each year, and has to be accountable for every service and dollar provided.
It gets about $5.1 million in annual revenue, including funds from state and federal agencies, health-insurance payments and private payers. It runs three youth centers at King County Housing Authority communities in Kent, and owns and operates a 10-unit apartment building for young mothers.
In 2015, 44 percent of the 430 children in Head Start/ECEAP were immigrants or refugees. The programs help children who are 3 to 4 years old and living in a household at or below the federal poverty level, with priority given to minorities, the homeless and foster children.
At the Kent center one day in November, Saed sat on a kid-sized chair in the noisy, colorful Head Start classroom, surrounded by 3- and 4-year-olds at a pint-size table. Reading a book aloud to the children, she prompted them to recall facts about trees that they’d learned in an earlier session.
“Who remembers what the fungus on trees is called?” A child tentatively offered the answer: “Lichen?” Saed nods her approval.
“What do trees give us?” she asks. A hand shoots up. “Oxygen!”
Then it’s time for lunch, and nap time. Saed hands teddy bears out to each of the children, and they snuggle down into their floor mats and blankets.
After Head Start classes are over, Saed will head home to continue her work as a day-care operator into the evening. She has one employee who takes care of children in the day care while she is teaching.
Saed is well-known for her generosity, LaRonde said. She now gives her time freely back to the community, including translating the Somali language for some of the Kent center’s clients.
Example to her daughters
Saed says she wants to inspire her five daughters to take advantage of the opportunities in the U.S., things that weren’t open to them in Somalia, where a college education often is not available to girls.
She’s helping to teach the young children in Head Start the earliest building blocks of math and engineering concepts.
Her oldest daughter, Fadumo, would like to start a class to introduce coding and other math skills to young children in her community.
It’s clear mother and daughter have an especially close relationship — finishing each other’s thoughts, laughing at each other’s jokes. Asked to pose for a picture, Fadumo throws her arm around her mom’s shoulders and beams.
Fadumo said she comes to visit at the preschool often, to pick up her younger brother, to eat lunch with her mom or to stop by and say hi. “It’s somewhere I definitely feel very welcomed, and it’s always nice seeing the kids,” she said.
Fadumo Abdirahman, left, Sabah Saed’s daughter, attended the Head Start program and is now a student at the University of Washington. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Saed says teaching at the preschool, and running her own day-care business, allows her to be a role model for her children, showing them “how work is going to pay off later in life.”
Indeed, for her, “The best day of my life was when I started working, and I gave my mom money,” Saed said.
But Fadumo thinks her mom works too hard. Once she graduates from college, she says, she hopes to support her mother so she will never have to work again.
Saed laughs at this idea. “I say, ‘I’m not going to retire.’ ”
But then she adds, “Maybe you can send me on vacation.”