Education: STEM, Coding and Leadership through Basketball
Companion Athletics connects kids in the East African community to coding, STEM education and leadership through basketball
January 02, 2018
This article was first published in Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science Magazine Volume 4, focusing on Education and Health & Wellness elements of a healthy community.
Musab Mohamed gets ready for basketball practice. The popular basketball league is just one way Companion Athletics engages kids and creates community.
By Cynthia Flash
The founders of Companion Athletics had an ulterior motive when they enticed the young men of their East African community to crash the boards and bury jumpers on the basketball court: Hook the kids on B-ball, then teach them how to code.
An unlikely combination for these Muslim American-born children of Somalian and Ethiopian refugees? Perhaps. But as Ayanle Ismail, cofounder and chairman of Companion Athletics, notes, Muslims have been bombarded with so much anti-Muslim rhetoric and the community needed something positive to talk about.
“The goal of this program is getting these young men and women to pursue higher education. But the best way to bring people together is through sports, community potlucks and parties. So we looked at what kept us off the street when we were growing up. Creating positive environments kept us out of the street and we’re just giving back the things that were given to us,” Ismail said.
But basketball was only the beginning. The three year-old nonprofit is also focused on creating a sense of community, developing leadership skills and providing STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) opportunities for youth. “We are not centered on basketball. We use it as a way to get our youth involved,” board member Hassan Wardere says. “What can you do to elevate it? We want to see all of these kids go to college, make them critical thinkers.”
Brothers Kareem and Yackub Abdi get more out of Companion Athletics than basketball.
On a recent Saturday night, 10 teams of middle and high school boys turned out to the SeaTac Community Center for five games of hoops. As the young men ran the gym, making layups and shouldering past each other, their fathers, brothers, uncles and Companion Athletics leaders cheered them from the sidelines.
When Amran Dolali watches son Nabil Ahmed play basketball at the Chief Sealth High School gym, she sits in the bleachers with the other fans. But here, with other Somali immigrants modestly covered from head to foot, she prefers to sit segregated with other women out of respect for her culture. Navigating this cultural gap is a constant challenge for immigrant populations: How to raise children in a new country with new rules and influences while maintaining the deep values and cultural ties from their native lands. Succeed and the next generation will rise above their refugee parents. Fail and the generation could be lost.
On the surface, Companion Athletics’ programs look similar to youth programs offered by the YMCA or Boys and Girls Club. But unlike those larger scale offerings, Companion Athletics incorporates its participants’ religion and ethnic culture into its programs. For example, just after the sun set during that recent Saturday night, games stopped so participants could line up at center court for the Maghrib, one of five daily prayers recited by Muslims around the world.
Kareem Abdi, 17, who played basketball for Kentwood High School in ninth grade, appreciates that cultural embrace of the Companion Athletics league. “We had a holiday called Eid and didn’t play during that time,” he says.
Hassan Wardere, left, one of Companion Athletics’ leaders, volunteers a lot of time to mentor and support youth like Nabil Ahmed.
Kareem, who is joined by his brother Yackub, 15, on the court, has taken advantage of many of the organization’s programs. He was one of the first 15 students to enroll in Companion Athletics’ first coding class in 2017. He learned how to make websites – something he found so interesting it’s now on his short list of career possibilities. “I never had experience in it,” he says. “The brothers with me helped me understand. It intrigued me so I wanted to come back. It made me see what the people at Microsoft do.”
Dolali, whose son and daughter Najma also participated in the coding class, immigrated with her husband to the United States from Somalia in the 1990s and hopes for a better life for their U.S.-born children.
“I don’t know what the future holds. You’re always worried,” she confides, acknowledging that some of the East African kids belong to gangs or are sitting in jail. Her children joined Companion Athletics after she saw an ad on the Internet. She appreciates the leadership the adults offer to help the kids stay out of trouble and expand their horizons. “I hope they go to university or college. I’m so happy my son has a mentor. I’m so happy he has this opportunity.”
In fact, many of the adults who give long volunteer hours to Companion Athletics, like Abdirahman Kariye and Khadija Noor, wish they had access to a similar program when they were growing up.
“There are so many people who are willing to be part of this and to give back," said Kariye, an imam at a nearby mosque. "There are also challenges like racism and other things that these kids have to find their way through. And I believe Companion Athletics really gives them that path, that understanding. It gives them knowledge to deal with these kind of situations.”
Noor organizes programs for girls, including a leadership series that touches on career opportunities and professionalism in the workplace.
Hajira Nor, foreground, and Hilal Nor, attend a girls’ leadership class through Companion Athletics that focuses on career options and more.
“In our community, the boys are the ones that are front and center and the girls are the ones who shy away, either doing their schooling or helping out their mothers, typically what they expect us to do,” she said. “I make sure to bring in girls and women speakers to motivate them and inspire them to see that could be you one day. We talk about some of the career paths that they want to have.”
The organization, which boasts nearly 400 basketball players, is expanding its coding program, recognizing how important STEM exposure and training is for the kids’ development and career opportunities.
The goal is to get more students involved in the coding and leadership classes to increase their chances for education and career success in the future.
The nonprofit also works to create partnerships with local companies to bring volunteers to the program or provide internships to the youth. “How can we create a collaborative piece to help our youth in the community branch off to greater things? These are your future software developers,” said Wardere, who emigrated to the U.S. from Somalia as a boy and graduated from the University of Colorado. “This is more than a (basketball) league. We make sure we create leaders. We say: I’ll hold your hand today, but tomorrow I want you to be the ones who lead.”
Companion Athletics’ first coding class was a hit, with more than 100 youth applying for 25 spots. The organization serves about 400 youth of East African origin in Seattle and King County with basketball and soccer leagues, coding classes, leadership classes, community events and more. The volunteer-run nonprofit and three partners received an Engagement Pipeline grant from Seattle Foundation's Center for Community Partnerships' Vibrant Democracy Initiative to strengthen the voice of the East African immigrant and refugee community. For more information on Companion Athletics' work, visit www.caseattle.org.
Center for Community Partnerships,
Heart and Science Magazine,
healthy community framework,
Increase leadership and integration of immigrants,
Parent and community engagement in education,
Reengage young adults in education,
Immigrants and refugees,
Vibrant Democracy Initiative,