When 25-year-old Masuma arrived in Colorado from Afghanistan in 2016 with her husband and toddler, she had already escaped the Taliban, undertaken a perilous journey to build a new life in the middle of a strange new land, and managed to keep her small family safe and intact in the face of unbelievable challenges.
Her husband had attracted the threatening attention of the Taliban because he worked as an electrical engineer for an American company in Kabul, far from their small village. The Taliban repeatedly stopped his car and made threats when he returned to his wife and son every couple of months. That’s when the couple decided to pack up and leave everyone they knew, believing it was only a matter of time before they’d be attacked. The couple traded stability, status, proximity to family and friends, and culture and language fluency for safety.
In Aurora, Colo, her husband accepted a maintenance job because his hard-earned engineering degree meant nothing in the U.S. It was a difficult transition for other reasons, too. Masuma spoke limited English and struggled to navigate the foreign norms of early education and care. She recalls the shock when she visited her son’s kindergarten classroom, “When I saw all the ways the teacher was advancing the children’s mental and physical skills, I realized I didn’t know how to match activities to the age of a child.”
In this foundational visit, Masuma also saw a future: teaching young children. Like other immigrants, Masuma faced barriers from attaining a traditional post-secondary education: lack of English skills, money and a high school diploma that’s difficult for her to provide since she finished high school in her native country.
Life has been anything but easy, but Masuma found a pathway through the Pamoja Early Childhood Education Workforce Program, a program that helps immigrants and refugees earn the Child Development associate credential in their native languages. Now, Masuma not only has survived, she’s well on her way to becoming a dual-language childhood educator.
Pamoja, primarily funded by state entities Early Milestones Colorado and Colorado Health Foundation, celebrates participants’ native languages and recognizes them as diverse educators to serve young children living in poverty, dual-language learners and children with special needs. At this time, the Pamoja program may be the only one of its kind in the U.S., offering free college-accredited courses in four languages: Swahili, Arabic, Farsi and Karen, a language spoken by refugees from Burma and Thailand.
Refugees like Masuma are critically important for reaching the growing diversity of children in the U.S. By 2025, children of immigrants will make up nearly one-third of the U.S. child population. Yet the majority of children of immigrants do not use center-based child care, despite the well-documented benefits of early learning services on children’s school readiness and long-term cognitive, socioemotional and educational outcomes. Only 17 percent of children of immigrants are in center-based care. Additionally, quality and sustained care can help immigrant children adapt to a new sociocultural environment, mitigate the impact of trauma and offer critical wraparound services. Young children of immigrants—particularly refugees—are more likely than their peers to experience trauma due to experiences before, during and after migration, particularly due to exposure to violence of war, genocide and separation from family members.
Immigrant early childhood educators are uniquely suited to reach this population because they share a language, culture and similar dislocation experiences to meaningfully engage with families. As immigrant mothers themselves, these educators understand the parents’ desire for their children to know their native traditions. Fatima, a Pajoma participant from Morocco, says, “The challenge I face is to help my kids strike a balance between our culture and that of our new country.” A positive learning experience for children of immigrants depends on a curriculum that incorporates their home cultures and languages, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. As a result, early education teachers need to work closely with parents, which requires real language access to effectively support children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.
Pamoja also recognizes limited technology literacy, financial burdens, the students’ own child care needs and discrimination that they face in the workplace, all of which help to ensure each woman completes her certificate and qualify her to be a lead teacher. Pamoja connects students with mentors to help with homework and technology skills and provides computers, so students don’t have to type their papers and complete homework on their phones. To reduce financial burdens, Pamoja also offers compensation for missed work time to attend class and provides payment to friends or family members who care for their children during class or practicum time.
The participants take an intensive English class and participate at centers under the supervision of a mentor to practice classroom materials. Lauren Dorn, one of the co-organizers, recognizes each woman as “bright, driven” and deserving of a place that’s going to build her up and support her—which translates to advocacy and support at every step from enrollment to job placement. In one instance when the organizers noticed that an EEC center was not accepting any of the Arabic-speaking women, particularly Muslims, they intervened to speak honestly about biases and expose the gaps that might exist for different cultural groups. The support from Pamoja at every step inspires purpose among the participants and has nourished Masuma’s ambition to be a preschool director.
Now in its second year, Pamoja has reached about 100 participants, and has a waiting list and new programs. Pamoja has expanded to help immigrant women attain master’s degrees, allowing them to bring their diversity and multilingualism into policy or state work, providing an opportunity for immigrant mothers to be at the decision-making table in early childhood. Through Pamoja, Fatima has met with state decision makers and social justice advocates to share her interviews and research on the problems Arab women face. In these leadership roles, refugee graduates can help the state understand the challenges, gaps and barriers for dual-language learners and refugee families.
Pamoja has also added the Family Friends and Neighbors (FFN) Family Home Training Program to support and celebrate FFN as the most common form of child care. Immigrant parents often prefer FFN caregivers, who often share language and culture with families, and thus, offer a trusted, safe and high-quality experience that is responsive to the families’ priorities. In addition to the lower cost and flexibility in location and service-hours, immigrant families believe FFN care provides more personal attention for their children. Research confirms that FNN providers often have low adult-child ratios, suggesting that these providers are able to spend more individual, quality time with each child.
The program uses a trauma-informed culturally and linguistically responsive education and training that has been designed to support infant mental health by increasing the emotional availability of those caring for children. Intervening in the caregivers’ trauma is critical because their well-being is inextricably and intimately connected to the mental health of the young child, affecting the children’s long-term achievement. Immigrant FFN providers carry a heavy load of stress: family-related stress, financial burdens, immigration-related stress, lack of stress management skills, poor self-care, burnout, primary and secondary trauma, limited developmental knowledge and child-rearing strategies, lack of belief in themselves, depression, anxiety and social isolation. The goal is to empower caregivers to have positive relationships with infants/toddlers.
Nonetheless, Dorn admits that “Pay is the challenge.” EEC is one of the most underpaid workforces in the U.S., historically and pervasively undervaluing the labor performed by women and especially women of color. For a single adult with one child, median child care worker wages do not meet a living wage in any state, yet many early teachers are parents at home. FFN providers are often underpaid, isolated and invisible.
The situation is even worse for immigrants: nearly 22 percent of immigrant EEC providers were living in poverty even prior to the pandemic. This lack of appreciation or fair compensation is part of a broader, historical trend wherein work done by women of color within private homes is not recognized as “real” work either by the public or policymakers. Dorn adds that some immigrants are unsure if this form of child care is a legal way to earn a living. Spanish speaking FFN care workers were half as likely to access subsidies as their English-speaking peers. Some states, including Florida and North Carolina, prohibit unauthorized immigrants from collecting any subsidies. Unsurprisingly, only 38 percent of Spanish-speaking providers indicated that they received subsidies or other financial support other than payments from parents, compared to 74 percent of English-speaking FFN providers. While there is no data for providers from the Middle East and Africa, the numbers of providers to receive subsidies is likely even smaller because there are fewer resources available in their languages.
As a result, progressive programs like Pamoja must be supported alongside policy changes and government investments to prevent exploiting vulnerable immigrant women. For example, there must be a concerted effort to reduce legislative and administrative barriers to support immigrant FFN care providers. This includes simplifying application processes, translating the process in multiple languages, revising documentation requirements and providing community outreach.
Yet another solution is creating funding avenues for FFN providers without requiring a license, which allows immigrant providers to sidestep the often inaccessible, expensive, and even threatening requirements to obtain a child care license. (Threatening, because most states require household-wide background checks to receive payments, which experts say feels threatening for undocumented providers or providers in mixed-status households).
Also, the Child Tax Credit provides flexibility for parents to use money how they want, trusting parents to find the best care for their children based on their specific needs, which might include linguistic and cultural continuity.
Early educators need fair compensation and reasonable working conditions to make a meaningful difference to their financial lives, value the strenuous work of women and move closer to establishing a more racially and gender-equitable society. Offerings like the Pamoja Early Childhood Education Workplace Program are helping to make that happen.
Ai Binh T. Ho is a Leading Edge Fellow with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). She focuses on the "Innovations in Childcare Access and Affordability in the United States" project at the Better Life Lab (New America).