Rayan Dhamuke, 12, doesn’t get to swim a lot, unlike her brothers. During the past summer, she had to visit the pool at 5 a.m. so that she would have the privacy she needed to enjoy the water while still adhering to her family’s cultural and religious beliefs.
To better accommodate girls like Dhamuke, the downtown St. Paul YMCA, in partnership with the St. Paul Police Department, has started a swim group for Somali-American girls. The group, which began in October, is serving as an outlet for girls ages 5 to 17 to learn the basics of swimming..
One evening last week, the din of girls’ laughter and splashes filled the windowless, humid pool room of the St. Paul downtown YMCA.
“Anybody want to try jumping in one more time?” asked an instructor.
“Me! Me! Me!” shouted a chorus of eager beginners, who wore mostly shirts and pants with their heads uncovered.
The group of about 25 girls, who were quiet and reserved earlier in the evening, seemed to come alive while in the water. With each jump, kick and splash, their confidence appeared to grow.
It’s a “night-and-day difference” from the first week when girls hesitated, not wanting to jump in and clinging to the walls of the pool, too afraid to let go, said Morgan Johnson, director of healthy living at the downtown YMCA. Now, they dive in. Even one of the mothers watching Tuesday’s lessons decided to jump in and go for a swim.
“We’ve moved kids from being afraid of the water to really being able to tread water,” said Mary Britts, executive director for the downtown YMCA.
Dhamuke said she enjoys the group because she gets to spend time with her friends. “It’s not that often when you get to swim,” she said.
Special considerations have to be made to address modesty concerns so that the Muslim girls can swim and not reveal too much of themselves.
During the hourlong swim practice, all other swimmers are cleared out of the pool. The men’s locker room is locked. Female life guards are brought in. The pool, which is on the building’s third floor, has no windows so they don’t have to worry about prying eyes from outside.
St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith had discussions with Britts to let the Y know that, through the department’s connections with the Somali-American community, they had learned that such a group was needed.
“I think this is just a great opportunity for them to learn basic skills that we take for granted,” said Sgt. Jennifer O’Donnell, who has worked with the Somali community regularly during her time with the department.
“We have to have privacy,” said Ubah Ali, Dhamuke’s mother.
For years, Ali said she has been trying to find a place where her daughter could swim, but nothing seemed to work. Not knowing how to swim is a safety risk, especially in the state of 10,000 lakes, Ali said.
Hani Hussein, who volunteers at the Al-Ihsan Islamic Center in St. Paul, said she looked into reserving public pools for girls, but it was too expensive.
“I really wanted the girls to come swim to learn not only how to swim but to build their confidence,” Hussein said.
Other metro YMCAs have water safety programs, but they don’t specifically cater to the needs of Somali girls. However, Britts recalled that a YMCA in north Minneapolis did have a Somali girls swim group about a decade ago.
Funding for the group comes from two metrowide water safety grants from Hawkins Inc. and Abbey’s Hope Charitable Foundation. The police department helps provide transportation for the girls to the YMCA.