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Pulling Themselves & Each Other Out of Poverty

In the Somali community, many women care for their children rather than work. Now, some are turning that into paying jobs.


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hen Hamun Yussuf was a girl, a vicious civil war broke out in Somalia, her home. Many of the men in her tribe left to fight. A lot never returned. Yussuf’s family fled to Kenya, where her mother worked at a shop while Yussuf, the oldest daughter, stayed home to care for her three siblings. In 2007, the family moved to Minnesota as refugees, and a year later Yussuf came to San Diego, lured by the weather and the hope of finding employment in City Heights’ large Somali community.

But she had never worked before, and she spoke little English. So to make a living, she babysat the five children of a Somali neighbor while the woman worked and attended school. It was all Yussuf had ever done when her family lived in Nairobi, and it helped her survive, just barely. She could hardly pay her $722 monthly rent.

But last year, with the help of a local nonprofit, Yussuf got a state license to be a child daycare provider. The license allows her to care for eight children in her home. It’s bumped her earn­ings from $26,400 a year to almost $38,000. The 24-year-old moved into a bigger City Heights apartment (with a bigger $833 rent) and even bought a used Toyota Camry.

“Now I can pay my rent,” says Yussuf, whose round, smiling face is framed by a colorful hijab. “I can pay my car.”

Hamun Yussuf isn’t alone. San Diego’s So­mali community is an estimated 30,000 strong and full of women like her. Women who’ve lost husbands or brothers to war. Women who came here for something better than the lawlessness of their east African country, which since 1991 has been mired in a civil war that’s swallowed up hundreds of thousands of its cit­i­zens. Women who, once here, have struggled to find jobs because they’ve never held them before.

Many are single mothers with few options. They accept welfare and depend on their neighbors for help as they try to rebuild their lives. But they can’t look for work because they have no one to watch their children.

Last year, a local nonprofit, Horn of Africa, saw a solution. The state’s Calworks program pays for families on welfare to take their children to licensed daycare providers. So the nonprofit started helping Somali women become licensed, allowing them to make money using skills they already had. The plan had an added benefit: It would provide daycare for Somali children so their mothers could attend English classes, search for jobs and eventually get off welfare.

Somali families could pull themselves, and each other, out of poverty.

“It’s a culturally sensitive way of providing a means for self-sufficiency,” says Ralph Achenbach, who coordinates Horn of Africa’s licensing program. Somali families are large, creating more demand for childcare, he says. “That accounts for why more Somalis want to get the license. It caters to the culture.”

Since last year, when the program launched, 106 women have gone through the 15-hour training. Sixty have submitted applications
for licenses, and 22 have received them. More are expected soon. The state just started issuing licenses again after a months-long hiatus. News of the opportunity has spread by word of mouth, the way most news does in San Diego’s tight-knit Somali community.

Yussuf’s neighbor saw a flier for the program at the school where she studies English. She took it to Yussuf and encouraged her to look into it. So she did. She learned about home safety, child nutrition and how to perform CPR. She’d never heard of CPR, but at the Horn of Africa’s office, she spread out on the floor with other Somali women and leaned over a dummy, pumping its chest to bring it back to life.

“It’s a culturally sensitive way of providing a means for self-sufficiency.”

She got her license in June, and in November, she moved into a modern apartment building in City Heights. Her third-floor apartment has new appliances, and the courtyard has a playground where the children play.

Today, Yussuf cares for seven children between the ages of 1 and 8. On a recent evening, her apartment bustled with the laughter of playing children, some jumping into her lap as she sat on the floor to watch cartoons with them. Someday, she says, she’d like to get a license to open a commercial daycare facility and care for up to 16 children. She thinks it could be a success because so many families in her community need childcare.

“I’m working in the Somalian people. Now they say, ‘Hamun, she has the license,’ ” she says. “Of course, yes, it is good because with the license I can work. I get more money.” 

Adrian Florido covers neighborhoods for ­voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit news organization that partners with San Diego Magazine.

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