In Their Words: Child Care in the Time of COVID-19


Ruaa Khaleefa (left) Rosa Kombwa (right) are both child care professionals in Iowa. 

Many parents of young children rely on child care in order to be able to work. That’s why child care is essential to our economic recovery as the country builds back from the coronavirus pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic, Save the Children Action Network (SCAN) has been working to raise awareness of the issues facing child care teachers and workers, and to help ensure they get the financial support they need to survive the economic impact of the pandemic.

As the SCAN state manager for Iowa, I had the pleasure of talking with 2 child care program managers about what they are seeing in the field. Both are from Iowa agencies that train and support refugee families who are interested in starting child care businesses in their homes. I also spoke with 2 program participants about their experiences. Here are their stories.

Meet the Participants

Ruaa Khaleefa is the child care specialist at Lutheran Services of Iowa (LSI) in Des Moines.

Rosa Kombwa is the Refugee Child Care Business Development Program Coordinator at the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) in Cedar Rapids.

Sama Agar is a single mom and refugee from Eritrea. She moved to the U.S. approximately 5 years ago, and completed the LSI child care business program in 2018.

Mlasi Bushiri is a refugee from the Congo who arrived in the U.S. in 2017. She completed the CMC Child care Business Development Program this February.

The Effect of Child Care Programs

E.J.: Please tell me about your program and your role in providing economic opportunities for refugees.

Ruaa: As an immigrant and a parent myself, I know that for many parents who arrive in the U.S. as refugees, it is difficult to find quality child care. In addition to barriers to employment, families are also adjusting to American life and may feel hesitant leaving their child with a stranger who doesn’t speak their language. They also may not be able to afford child care.

LSI’s child care program trains former refugees to start their own in-home child care businesses, which benefit more families in the refugee community. I enjoy helping families accomplish their goals and overcome barriers.

Rosa: CMC trains and supports refugee families that are interested in starting child care businesses in their homes. These child care businesses provide income for these families while providing access to affordable child care that is both culturally and linguistically appropriate for those from the refugee community. The families that have been participating in our program get about 42.3% of their income from child care. Our goal is to grow this number to about 50%.

E.J.: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your programs?

Rosa: The pandemic is hitting our child care businesses hard. When schools are closed, parents choose to stay home with their children or have an older sibling who would normally be in school take care of the younger siblings. That means child care providers have less children attending. The pandemic has also made it difficult to continue training our child care providers. At this time, they would be continuing education classes at the Catherine McAuley Center. We are able to do some classes online but not all our providers are able to get online for different reasons.

Ruaa: We have many less clients. Even our January cohort is having trouble completing the full program in the wake of COVID-19. Less people are interested in the program as well. Refugee clients usually come in-person, which is more comfortable for them. Now they don’t come into the office, so we must help them connect to programs, provide interpretation services and navigate the process of certifying their business virtually. As an outgoing person, I find remote assistance very taxing and it’s hard to connect with clients on a personal level. Finally, we’re hearing from the clients we follow up with after completing our program that they are taking less children or closing their in-home centers for fear of getting sick.

Building a New Life

E.J.: Sama and Mlasi, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. What has it been like for you to receive training through the CMC or LSI, and how has the pandemic affected your businesses?

Mlasi: The CMC helped me fill out paperwork for their child care program. At first, I was not sure if I could do this program, but they encouraged me and told me that I could do it. With their help, I was able to finish the training and get my Department of Human Services registration to watch children. I was very excited to start my own business and help my community. However, I received my license to watch children in February 2020, two weeks before schools shut down. Now it is very hard to run my program or find children to watch. In July, when things seemed to get much better, some child care providers were able to get children to watch. I only got one child who was part-time. I could not afford to only have one part-time child so I opted to go back to work outside of the home.

Sama: I came from a place with no peace and no work. After arriving in the U.S., I was eager to work, but I did not have the language skills. LSI helped me complete the paperwork, safety and training requirements to open my own child care business. I now have five children full-time. Even with the pandemic, I am following safety and cleaning guidelines, and I help as many families as I can. I even offer a discount to essential workers.

As we heard from Rosa, Ruaa, Mlasi and Sama, child care is not only essential to our business infrastructure, but also a powerful tool to help refugees and immigrants become economically self-sufficient. COVID-19 outbreaks and disruptions not only hurt our country’s workforce, but disrupt the process of many communities to take care of each other. That’s why we must urge lawmakers and the incoming Biden administration to prioritize investments and stimulus funding for child care. The stability of so many communities depends on it.                                                        

Urge the Biden Administration and Congress to Prioritize Child Care.

Learn more: The Catherine McAuley Center

Learn more: Lutheran Services of Iowa

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E.J. Wallace is the Iowa State Manager for Save the Children Action Network (SCAN). He strives to make children at home and around the world a priority for elected leaders by leveraging the powerful stories of child care providers, educators, refugees and allies. To E.J., there is nothing more important than ensuring a brighter future for our children.