Yasmin Habib has been on many journeys. From Somalia to Kenya as a small child. From a Kenyan refugee camp to the U.S. at age 5. From city to city as her family sought opportunities in America. But Habib’s most challenging journey has been veering from the path expected of her—a career in medicine—to a path that felt right.
Today Habib, ’14, is founder and director of World Mind Creation Academy, a nonprofit for refugee, immigrant and other marginalized youth in South Seattle. She created the academy in 2014 and three years later received a major grant from King County’s Best Starts for Kids initiative to expand the program. But those successes belie the challenges Habib encountered along the way.
When she arrived at the UW, Habib had an impeccable academic record. Valedictorian of her high school in Kent, she had long planned to become a physician. But her pre-med courses didn’t excite her, and a medical-dental summer program after her sophomore year confirmed that she did not want to be a doctor. It was a difficult realization.
“My family sacrificed a lot,” Habib says. “The best thing to an immigrant mom and dad is for their child to be a doctor, because everybody needs doctors … For a long time I convinced myself that’s what I wanted to do.”
Habib fell into a depression. She took time off from school and moved back home. Telling her parents she did not want to be a doctor “was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” she recalls. “But I was already at the lowest I could be, and the only thing that became important was being happy again, feeling normal. The depression forced me to speak my truth.”
She remembered liking an anthropology class. When she returned to campus, she decided to take more, including a anthropology service-learning course that involved tutoring Somali children at a local nonprofit. “That was a huge turning point,” she says. Being around Somali youth felt familiar, as did the children’s focus on academic success. Habib saw herself in those students and understood the intense pressure they felt to succeed.
“Children need to feel a sense of belonging, to celebrate their cultural heritage, and to discover that they can thrive and make a difference in their own communities.”
“There’s this huge emphasis on getting your work done,” she says. “But what about connection? What about emotion? I learned the hard way that you have to make time for that, or your body will force you to make time for it. I wanted to prevent the same thing from happening to these kids.”
That thought stayed with Habib after she graduated. She read books about youth development and volunteered with nonprofits to better understand existing programs for children. But none of those programs provided the services she wanted to offer. So, after a year of planning—including many conversations with mentor Bettina Shell-Duncan, professor of anthropology—Habib launched World Mind Creation Academy.
The after-school program in South Seattle’s Rainier Vista neighborhood offers six-week sessions where children ages 6 to 14 play games, participate in team-building activities and take on community projects. “Children need to feel a sense of belonging, to celebrate their cultural heritage, and to discover that they can thrive and make a difference in their own communities,” says Habib.
Adult mentors are an important part in this endeavor. Habib says that children benefit from mentors who look like them, speak their languages and can relate to their experiences. The academy’s mentors help with projects but encourage the children to take the lead—an experience Habib wished she’d had as a child. “I didn’t feel fully heard when I was 8,” she says. “That happens so much with kids, and it’s so unfair to them. At WMCA, kids get to own the program. That can be very challenging for the adults, who want things to be perfect. But our idea of perfect and the kids’ idea of perfect is not that same, and we have to accept that.”
For the first few years, Habib ran the program on a shoestring, securing short-term projects on a contract basis. Then she heard about King County’s Best Starts for Kids initiative. “It felt like the perfect grant at the right time,” she recalls. “It just fit with everything we were trying to do.”
With a $500,000 grant in 2017, Habib has expanded WMCA’s curriculum while maintaining the focus on children’s emotional well-being.
Receiving the grant was both exhilarating and scary, Habib says, much like the decision to follow her passion. Her journey has been difficult, but “I feel like it’s all working out the way it’s supposed to.”