YMCA, St. Paul police start swim club for Somali girls

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St. Paul police, as part outreach to its Somali community, have repeatedly heard a common lament: There is no place that Somali girls – with specific modesty considerations – can go to learn to swim.

So the downtown St. Paul YMCA, in coordination with the St. Paul police, have started a swim group where girls and learn to enjoy the water in privacy, the Star Tribune reports.

The first group of about 25 girls, ages 5 to 17, has already begun lessons, the newspaper reports. They gather under conditions that respect their cultural and religious beliefs – no men are allowed, the lifeguards are female and the girls are allowed to swim in shirts and pants with their heads covered, the Star Tribune notes. Parents are grateful their children are learning to swim in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and the girls are giddy. “It’s not that often when you get to swim,” one said.

St. Paul police have been making efforts to smooth relations with the city's sizable Somali population, especially since earlier this year when an insensitive photo surfaced of an officer in a hijab.

The force hired its first Somali-born officer last year.

St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith told a congressional panel in 2011 that his officers are spending time with Somali-American youth in soccer games and camping trips in a grassroots effort to help counter the threat of Islamic radicalization.

In related international news, a German court in a landmark decision ruled in September that Muslim girls there must take part in school swimming lessons with boys, NBC News reported. The decision suggests that the German state's constitutional obligation to educate children can override customs and practices linked to a person's religious beliefs.

That case was rooted in the story of an 11-year-old girl and her Moroccan parents in Frankfurt, The Economist reported. Her parents had demanded that she be exempted from co-educational swimming.

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