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How a new group is trying to counter negative perceptions about Somali-American day cares in Minnesota

Somali-American daycare
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Young children at St. Paul’s Kids Garden Day Care, one of growing Somali-owned center in Minnesota.

The preschoolers at the St. Paul-based Kids Garden Day Care rose from their seats and rushed to embrace Mohamed Gelle when he stepped into their classroom on Thursday. 

They jumped up and down, laughed and shouted, “We miss you!”

Then Gelle looked each one of them in the eye and asked how their day was. 

“Good,” they replied as they rushed back to their seats.

Gelle founded Kids Garden in 2010, and today it has more than 300 children ages six months to 12 years old — kids whose parents immigrated from Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Child care has become a popular business among Somali-Americans in Minnesota. A little over a decade ago, there were barely any such facilities owned by Somalis. Today, there are nearly 90 Somali-owned registered day care centers operate across the state. 

In recent years, however, many of those centers have come under intense scrutiny. Several places in the Twin Cities metro area have closed after federal agencies raided them as part of a criminal fraud investigations. And many Somali day care owners now say their businesses have suffered from a negative image — even among the state's Somali-American community.

In response, a group of 76 Somali-American day care owners recently banded together to form The Minnesota Minority Childcare Association (MMCA), which is aimed at fighting misconceptions about their businesses, improving child care centers and educating owners about regulatory and compliance issues. 

“A lot of the Somali centers haven’t learned about all the rules and regulations that all the centers are supposed to have,” said Gelle, who’s also a vice-chair of the association. “This is one of the ways that they can get together and share what needs to happen at the centers.”

The formation of the association came after state and federal authorities accused several Somali-owned day care businesses of overbilling the state and its Child Care Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay for child care.

In 2016, for example, Abdirizak Ahmed Gayre of Minneapolis and Ibrahim Awgab Osman of New Hope were charged with billing the state more than $1 million for work their day care centers didn’t actually do, according a Hennepin County complaint.

Several similar cases were also reported in 2015, 2016 and 2017 — incidents that members of MMCA say cast a shadow over all Somali-owned centers. “Not all owners are corrupt,” said Isaak Geedi, chairman of the association and owner of the Bloomington-based We Care Child Care. “The majority of them are actually hard-working individuals that are making ends meet.”

Mustafa Jumale
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Mustafa Jumale

To address the problem, Geedi, Gelle and other owners realized they had to come together, organize and engage with the state’s Department of Human Services, which administers the Child Care Assistance Program. “The DHS has had a negative perception about Somali childcare centers,” said Geedi. 

In the group’s discussions with DHS, Geedi said, the department has expressed concerns about the fraud cases, but also with some of the ways Somali-run day care businesses recruited and retained their clients: hiring parents to work at the same day cares their children attend.  

The MMCA has worked to address DHS' concerns, but the main reason it was created was to educate day care owners about regulatory compliance to improve the educational program offered at the centers. “We don’t tolerate fraud,” Geedi said. “If we hear somebody is doing something wrong, we want to reach out to them and make sure they get educated. If they continue, we’ll expel them from the association and take a legal stand against them.” 

In the last legislative session, MMCA also started a new effort to collaborate with DHS to help Somali-owned day care centers, and the association even hired a lobbyist, Mustafa Jumale, who has been serving as a liaison between the centers and the Legislature. “Members of the association are recognized by the legislators,” said Jumale. “They call us; they text us. We have a seat at the table, which we didn’t have before. And I think that’s the brilliance of the Minnesota Minority Childcare Association.”

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Comments (2)

Ibrahim Hirsi's Excellence in Journalism

I read MinnPost frequently, but have not been gainfully employed since 2014. Hence, I cannot offer to pay for MinnPost's work and for the great journalism that journalists, like Mr.Ibrahim Hirsi, provides on the Somali and Muslim community of our region.

While I was an honors student at De La Salle High School, and later went on to Macalester College and University of Minnesota, and two schools in Europe and one in Central America, the words "mentally ill" and "developmental disorder" entered into my self-definition. Mostly, as an autistic man, I had difficulties; however, those are now gone.

Importantly, I hope to see MinnPost do stories on professionals and world leaders who have overcome "mental illness" such as bipolar depression and autistic spectrum disorder, to help mitigate the fear, hatred, and lack of trust that employers and apartment managers have once they have those words to tag an employee, tenant, or prospective employee or tenant. Much of what the world "knows" about people with mental illnesses and autism are products of a broadcast, cinematic, and print media community which tells hyped up and dramatic stories of people in these two demographics.

For me, Mr. Hirsi's reporting on groups which have been maligned, feared, and misunderstood, such as the East African Diaspora community and the Muslim community, are telltale how balanced and thoughtful reporting can both capture and retain the attention of readers, as well as sooth the beasts within us who have drawn conclusions about groups based on tall and dramatic stories.

I hope MinnPost will do more work of this favored kind on people with mental health and developmental disorders. Many of us take our desire to meld with "neuro-typical" and otherwise humane and authentic people seriously. It does pay off for us, but like the Somali day care community, only a small fraction of the community has shown to not be trustworthy; yet, society has apparently branded the entire group. As one who has lived among the East Africans at Riverside Plaza, since my college days over twenty years ago, I relate to this population as being kind, supportive, and measured in their way about moving in the smaller and larger society.

With my desire to see more work in journalism done to dispel the myths of mental illness and autism, I hope, also, that Mr. Hirsi and colleagues will do more to share with the community the true beliefs of Islam, as many people still believe that the organization called Islamic State represents Islam. Neither did the hijackers on 9/11 represent the teachings of the Qur'an, as I have read as a matter of course, given my associations and friendships with Muslims from the Middle East and Asia, as well as Africa, as a Macalester College student and alumnus, and as I was active enough among students and staff at University of Minnesota who are and were of the true faith and teachings of the Qur'an, a book which, like the Christian and Judaic bibles, teaches monotheism and godliness. Islam recognizes the prophet Jesus Christ, as the immaculately conceived son of Mary, and as the Messiah. Holy mother Mary is also revered by active and aware people who correctly call themselves Muslims.

Mr. Hirsi, you are a very valuable member of our community. Please keep up the excellent work. You, as a writing role model, continue to drive me to active and manifest excellence as a writer.

Barry N. Peterson, B.A., History
University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts, Class of 1996
Macalester College alumnus and friend, Class of 1984, without graduation
De La Salle College Preparatory High School, Honors and Gifted Student, Class of 1980
Past Director of DFL MN Senate District 60 Board of Directors and Past Active member of Old Senate District 59's Central Committee.

Thanks

Thank you, Barry. I appreciate your kind words.