From a corner of the Way to Grow office, boisterous laughter rises above the quiet workday chatter. No one has to ask—everyone knows that voice, and smiles spread around the office. Shamsa Idle, a Way to Grow Family Educator, throws her hands in the air, smiling as she recalls a story from her most recent home visit to a new family. Her stories are plentiful, her joy is infectious, and after two decades of service to her families, she has established herself as a rock in her Minneapolis community.
Shamsa’s journey to Way to Grow started 10 years before she set foot in the United States. It was 1987, and she had just completed nursing school in Mogadishu, Somalia. Shamsa knew she wanted to commit herself to changing the lives of families, so she took a job at the Mother and Child Health Center operated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Her work took her out of Mogadishu and into the surrounding countryside, where she led a team into rural villages to educate families and provide basic services. She and her team taught nutrition, provided education on healthy practices for safe food and water, and distributed immunizations to some of the most isolated parents and children in Somalia.
Knowing the immense value of her work, the Somali government awarded Shamsa a competitive scholarship from the WHO and the World Food Program (WFP) from the United Nations to go to Italy for one and a half years and train in prenatal and infant nutrition. One of 10 people selected from Somalia, she felt blessed to be given the opportunity to learn and return with even more skills to benefit the rural families in her community.
Yet all was not well in her home country, as conflicts continued to escalate and it was apparent that war was on the horizon. Of the 10 students who studied in Italy, only three decided to return to Somalia at the conclusion of their program. Despite growing unrest, Shamsa chose to return home. “I had to pay back my country,” she explained. “I had been given so much and did not want to be selfish.”
In 1991, eight months after her return to her position at the Mother and Child Health Center in Mogadishu, war broke out in Somalia. “Everyone ran outside of the country to save their lives, so my whole family went to Nairobi, Kenya.” Shamsa had always planned to return home once it was safe, but year after year the conflict dragged on and the humanitarian crisis only worsened. For three years, she lived with her family in a refugee camp in Nairobi, waiting to either return home or obtain a visa to enter the United States.
Shamsa had never dreamed of leaving her country, her work, or her family, but in 1996 she arrived alone in the United States. With her papers finalized, Shamsa applied to bring her family over and moved to the Twin Cities to begin building a new life. “My friend was in Minnesota and welcomed me. This place allows people from all over the world, that speak different languages, to come together.” With one of the largest Somali communities outside of Somalia, it felt a little more like home. “I went to the Somali community here, and they connected me with someone to help me find a job.” That job ended up being the only one she would ever need.
In 1997, Way to Grow was growing and looking for people who wanted to work with families and children, and Shamsa was a perfect fit. Just one year after arriving in the United States, she found herself meeting new staff, learning a new city, and connecting with families from all around the world as a new Family Educator. At the time, Way to Grow was just building its directory of resources, and as a new member of the team, Shamsa found herself driving around a brand new city, going block by block to inventory resources in South Minneapolis. Although challenging work, Family Educators like Shamsa truly helped lay the groundwork for Way to Grow as it is today through their persistence and dedication to building a stronger community. As an added benefit, Shamsa jokes that she now knows the streets so well that people rely on her like a GPS: “When we have taxis bringing families to events, they are calling me asking me how to get there!”
When asked why she has stayed at Way to Grow for so long, Shamsa replies, “I am working with families. I am working with children, and that was my passion back home. I want to help families to succeed in their lives and their children to get ready for their education. I want to make change in our community and help those people who get here but don’t know the systems or culture.” It seems that no matter how far she travels and no matter the hardships she has overcome, helping new families will always come first for Shamsa. “When a child is waiting for you at the home, smiling. When you see a child reading. You can see what we did. That is exciting.”
A pillar in both the Way to Grow office and our Minneapolis community, Shamsa has touched the lives of thousands of people over the past 20 years and shows no signs of slowing down. She is the first to declare that she will never give up on a family and will fight for her families and their children day in and day out. Her inspiring dedication has forged long-lasting relationships, grounded the Somali community, and helped build a stronger Way to Grow. “I am everywhere!” she proclaims with a laugh.
Shamsa, we are so lucky for it!