Teacher and author Mariam Mohamed aims to help kids feel proud of where they come from

14December 2021

Mariam Mohamed cried when she opened her first published book. Looking at the cover illustration of the protagonist — a Somali American girl wearing a hijab — she thought back to her own childhood as a Muslim immigrant.

She remembers being told to read more to improve her English, but then struggling to find books at the library with characters who looked like her. She loved the stories about Junie B. Jones and Ramona Quimby, but began to think of those fictional characters’ lives as the definition of “normal” for an American girl.

“I’d go home to my own cultural experience and I’d feel ashamed,” Mohamed said. Still, Mohamed kept reading. She was the kid who chose to spend hours at Barnes and Noble rather than join her siblings for games in the park. By age 7, she was telling everyone who would listen that she wanted to be either a teacher or an author.

Today, at 31, she’s both. The three children’s books she’s written lie on the desk in her office at Banaadir Elementary — a Minneapolis charter school nearly all Somali students — where she works as a math intervention specialist.

She’ll also soon be able to add “screenwriter” to her resume: Though she can’t share all the details yet, Mohamed said she is working with a team that wants to put her characters and stories on television. She hopes she can bring the first hijab-wearing character to a major children’s network.

“I want children to know that we don’t all come from the same walk of life, but everyone should be proud of where they came from,” she said. “I want them to feel that they can share their story without shame.”

That message seems to be resonating. Mohamed has been invited to speak at several schools and she’s heard from kids and their parents from across the country. While the parents thank her for her books’ representation of an immigrant child as well as a child with autism, the notes from kids are often along the lines of, “I want to be an author. How can I be like you?”

Khaleef Warsame, the director of Banaadir Elementary, said Mohamed is a great role model for students.

“She offers that real life example of a Somali American who is successful after she chased her own dreams,” he said.

Warsame said Mohamed is also great at creating a classroom environment that represents and celebrates students’ cultures.

“She understands their background and tells them that she was a child like them, who was different than others around her,” he said. “She relates to them and uses that to encourage them to achieve whatever they want to.”

Mohamed is also on a mission to help other mothers pursue their passions as well. She started writing while pregnant and wrote her second and third books in the evenings, after putting her two children to bed.

“For a long time, I thought I had to pick one dream — either teacher or author,” she said. “And I see so many mothers put their own goals aside when they have children.”

Motherhood has motivated Mohamed even more. She is determined to write the kinds of stories she wants her own children to find on the shelves of the library or on their favorite TV channel.

In recent years, Mohamed has noticed more and more books with a diverse range of characters, though she worries that sometimes the stories focus on the differences. Though she does have themes of bullying in her stories, she tries to steer clear of narratives that perpetuate ideas of pity, she said.

“There’s such a need for that,” she said. “As a child, you need to be able to imagine yourself in the world that you’re reading or watching.”

Five years ago, Mohamed said she would have had a hard time imagining her life as it is now: with her evenings spent writing screenplays that may someday reach thousands of children. With three published books on her shelf. With her students and her own kids seeing her as a writer to look up to.

She’s motivated by the conviction to help children be proud of who they are, of their own story.

And that little girl who scoured the library for books she could see herself in? She’d be pretty proud, too.

Mohamed’s books can be found on her website at worthywordsllc.com.

This post was originally published on this site

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