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Nissa’s Journey: A Somali Mother’s Nurturing Hope for Ashwaq

Nissa is a resilient Somali mother who now calls Portland home with her husband and children. When her daughter Ashwaq was born, Nissa was already an experienced, loving mother. She had four older children. She knew how to soothe a crying baby on her lap and calm a frustrated toddler. She knew instinctively what they needed.   

At 8 months, when Ashwaq still wasn’t speaking, Nissa says “I knew something was wrong. By that age, my other children were saying ‘Mama’ and other small words.” But Ashwaq? Nothing.  

The pediatrician assured Nissa that Ashwaq was fine. Other mothers in Nissa’s community said the same thing, that Ashwaq would catch up as she got older. In her native Somali, there is no word for “autism.” But Nissa knew deep down that Ashwaq needed additional support.       

Nissa has faced a lifetime of challenges, including leaving her homeland at 13.  She’s resourceful. But she was alone in her search for answers. By the time Ashwaq was two and still not speaking, Nissa knew how critical early intervention could be. It could determine Ashwaq’s future.    

We find that when someone comes to Neighborhood House for help, their needs often overlap. Neighborhood House staff, who are also Somali, helped Nissa find medical care to assess Ashwaq and start her therapies for autism. They also connected her to additional services such as delivering groceries from our food program, parenting program visits, Head Start education for Ashwaq, and temporary financial support.    

Ashwaq started kindergarten this fall, ready for life-long learning. To Nissa and her husband, it felt like a victory years in the making. Even though she still doesn’t use many words, other children love her and seek her out to play. Nissa says Ashwaq is “a radiant light.”    

And now that Ashwaq is in school during the day, Nissa is taking the opportunity to train to be a parent educator. “I want other Somali families to know that the unique needs of an autistic child are a gift,” she said. She wants to give back to the community that gave so much to her.    

It’s fitting that Ashwaq’s favorite song is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Her little light keeps growing brighter.