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Nurturing young Somali girls: Woodbury, Minn., woman wins McKnight award

Fartun Osman is a winner of the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Services for her counseling and leadership work with young Somali girls. Submitted photo

After Fartun Osman fled her civil war-torn country of Somalia, she didn't quit trying to help others overcome destructive social and cultural norms.

The Woodbury single mother of four continued volunteering for nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities to try and get young Somali girls to achieve their dreams of becoming something their ancestors never thought they'd be.

For her several years of service nurturing the girls to become athletes and leaders through counseling, advocacy and role modeling, Osman was named a recipient of this year's Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Services.

"Fartun does a great job of showing the huge difference one person can make," said Tim Hanrahan, communications director for the McKnight Foundation.

She's coached more than 500 girls since 2005 and reached out to parents everywhere who did not have much knowledge of the education system in Minnesota, he said.

A former professional basketball player herself, Osman strongly believes in staying fit and leading a healthy lifestyle, she said.

Though some families in Somalia denied girls the opportunity to play sports and attend school, Osman was not one of them. She grew up playing soccer, basketball and running track along with her 10 brothers and one sister.

She said many Somali girls in Minnesota are still experiencing double-standard living, where the men in their lives deny them the opportunity to play sports.

"They think all they have to do is stay home and cook and clean," Osman said, adding, "I see our community needs a lot of help when it comes to girls."

Osman is a soccer coach and physical education teacher at Higher Ground Academy, a charter school in St. Paul. She's also a basketball coach for various other community teams.

"You see so many kids in the streets hitting gangs, they don't know what to do with their lives," Osman said.

She explained that although girls are different from boys in the Somali community and are not so much attracted to the gang world, they still face some challenges.

As a Somali woman, she said, it's hard to go to school without putting up a fight with the families, let alone play sports.

"You are now 15, you can't play, you're becoming a woman," Osman said, referring to what some of the parents would tell their girls.

Additionally, some of the girls believe they're unable to play soccer and basketball if they're dressed modestly as per religion requirements.

"They think if they wear the hijab, it prevents you from playing sports," Osman said, referring to the Muslim head covering.

When she first started volunteering and recruiting girls to play sports, she said it was hard. But after a while it became easier as the girls and their families saw the value in staying active.

It's not all about the physical activity though, Osman said. She said sports teaches girls to become leaders, builds their self confidence and continues their education to become valuable assets to their community.

As she looked at a photo of the 2007 Higher Ground Academy girls soccer team, she pointed at the girls and said some have moved on to college to pursue medical school, law school and other professional careers.

"I'm so proud of them."

Osman is one of six recipients statewide who were given the award along with $10,000 at a ceremony Friday, Sept. 9.

But it wasn't all about the recognition for Osman. She said she wasn't expecting it and is humbled by it.

She was simply following in the footsteps of her father who was recently killed in Somalia while helping with the peace making process.

"If you have the time, do it," she said of volunteering.

Hanrahan said Osman is making use of her special talent while making a difference in her community.

"She's doing something she loves and at the same time she's elevating the people around her," he added.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.