February 10, 2017

Somali-speaking caseworker Khadija Fai has a heavy lift. And it's her life's dream.

On any given day, Khadija Fai, a senior case manager at Bienestar de la Familia, might see 10 to 13 clients. Most are mothers.

One woman worries her son has been wearing red, the color common with some gangs and constantly asking her for money.

Another woman says she knows her daughter changes out of her traditional clothes at school and talks to boys. She wants to discuss it, but doesn’t know how. “I’m done pretending that doesn’t exist,” she tells Fai in Somali.

A mother of four boys doesn’t know how to help a son struggling in school. “My child is failing,” the woman tells Fai. “I don’t read or write. What can I do to show him that he’s not alone?”

In addition to case management for Somali American families, Fai coordinates English and nutrition classes, and she hopes to launch a parenting class for East African refugees to address fears and mistrust of the state’s Child Protective Services Division.

“It’s never for themselves. It always goes back to their kids. And that’s really beautiful,” Fai said of her clients. “They want to motivate and empower their kids.”


Bienestar, a program of Multnomah County’s Department of County Human Services, developed more than 20 years ago as a social service program and community center to serve Spanish-speaking Latina and Latino residents. But Director Nabil Zaghloul tracked the program’s growing Somali American clientele for years, making the case he needed someone who could speak Somali, too. Today nearly one-in-five clients is from Eastern Africa, mostly Somalia. 

“We have seen a shift in the demographics of clients we see. It only makes sense to have someone bilingual and bicultural,” Zaghloul says. “It’s showing the community we’re committed, we’ll advocate for them.”

Even Zaghloul wasn’t prepared for the champion he would get when he hired Fai in February 2016.

“She’s been super busy every day,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to slow her down.”

Zaghloul laughs and shakes his head when he thinks about the times he’s tried to tell her, “I want you to be here next week, next month and next year.” But she still squeezes people in without appointments and takes calls at all hours.

“She’s really doing the job of two caseworkers,” Zaghloul says. “The need is great. And that’s one of our challenges.”


Fai is Somali-American, but she refers to herself as “African.”

“It might be politically incorrect to say I’m an African, because it’s a huge continent. But when I say I’m an African, it’s the continent that I identify with,” she said. “When we separate among ourselves we create more separation, more division. But we can unify and be proud of that.”

Fai said too many American children of African refugee families hear only one story about their heritage: Disease. Killing. Chaos.

“I know Somali kids who deny being Somali,” Fai says. When she asks them why, she gets some version of the same response. “Every time we turn on the TV, it’s pirates, terrorism.”

“There are countries that are not at war, that are not in famine. But we don’t talk about it,” Fai says. “The kids growing up here, they don’t have the opportunity to learn about their own heritage, their own culture.”

Fai immigrated with her mother and six siblings as refugees in 1996. The family settled into an apartment on Southeast Belmont Street, in a neighborhood drained of color.

“You take the bus, and no one looks like you,” Fai recalls from those first months. “That’s when I first learned about the hippies.” 

These Oregonians wore funky clothes, smelled of something -- not bad exactly, but strange to Fai -- and some dreaded their hair. Fai knew black people who wore dreads. But in the U.S., she couldn’t help wondering, “Why don’t they comb their hair?” 

“We knew we were different,” Fai remembers. 

Her family soon moved to a subsidized apartment at Northeast Knott Street and Rodney Avenue. The complex was filled with Ethiopian and Somali families. Fai grins as she remembers.“We didn’t even have to introduce ourselves. We knew each other instantly,” she says with a snap of her fingers. “It felt like community. It felt like a safe place.”

Like a lot of Somali American teens, many who grow up Muslim, Fai didn’t wear her hijab -- or head covering -- at school. Her mother didn’t force her. “Don’t cover yourself because I want you to cover,” Fai remembers her mother saying.

Fai earned a degree in international studies from Portland State University, hoping one day to return to Eastern Africa’s refugee camps. She wanted to show the kids waiting for resettlement that it wasn’t just foreigners who would come to the camps to help. “People came from the Middle East, Europe, Canada, the United States,” Fai recalls of the aid workers at those camps. She wondered at the time, “Why don’t my own people come back and help us?”

“It discourages you when you see your own people not really stepping up to the plate,” she says. “The people who always can help, are people who don’t look like you.”

Fai wanted to change the narrative. She applied many times for work with the United Nations, but the fresh college graduate was passed over.   

Still, she was determined, “if I can’t work with people back home, I can work here.”


Today Fai serves clients who’ve lived in the United States for a decade, and others who arrived  only weeks ago. Most of her clients come from a camp in Ethiopia where they lived for decades. Some were born there. Education was rudimentary. And residents there were given precious little opportunity to “make something” of themselves. But once in the U.S., Fai said, they suddenly faced a new expectation: “Pull yourself up. By yourself.”

“You come from chaos,” Fai says. “How do you adapt? But people want you to adapt very quickly.”

Few of her clients know how to read in Somali, let alone in English. She sometimes gets phone calls hours after she’s left work from clients frantic over mail they don’t understand - sometimes nothing more than an advertisement.

Fai helps them apply for public benefits, advocate for their kids, and connect to services offered at local schools and other social service programs. She’s able to help without some of the challenges created by cultural and language differences.

For example, Somali women might prefer not to shake hands with a man for religious and cultural reasons, but often feel pressured to do so out of fear of offending a male caseworker. 

Or she and a client might have what seems to her a normal conversation. But sometimes someone will ask later whether her client was angry. “A mother might be very vocal and to an outsider she might look mad. But she’s not,” Fai says. “Somali people are happy. And they can be loud.”

Also, the Somali language cannot be translated simply into English. And poor translations can have dire consequences. “A mother might ask, ‘How can I discipline my child?’” Fai explains. In direct translation, “It might sound like, ‘How can I beat my child?’”

“And it’s more than understanding the culture and language,” Fai says. “It's important to have someone who has experienced some of the experiences they had. It makes it easier to talk about it. It’s not so you feel pity or feel sad.”

Fai helps families cut through the confusion, the misunderstandings, the frustration, the fear. And she’s a welcoming -- and familiar -- sight.


An older woman wanders into the center and Fai can hear her call Fai’s name. When Fai comes to the door, the woman breaks into a wide smile and grabs Fai in a hug that’s rocking, easy and strong, like a mother and daughter. They laugh and chat in Somali for a few minutes. 

The woman, Anab Abdulle, needs help with emergency electricity and rental assistance. But Fai can’t see her until March. Fai suggests Abdulle try some other agencies, but Abdulle says she’ll wait.

So they chat a little longer. Abdulle has been in the United States 11 years. In English, she says  Fai is, “Nice. Very good.” Then, in Somali, she says, being able to speak the same language makes all the difference. Fai can help in a way others can’t.

Fai says goodbye and returns to her desk. She sits down with a grin, and says, “That’s what makes the work so beautiful.”