Zainab Hashi welled up with anger at a Senate committee hearing last week as she watched speaker after speaker accuse Somali-owned child-care centers of defrauding the state, and even worse, diverting money meant for poor families to fund terrorist groups overseas.
"Why were we not allowed to testify?" asked Hashi, who is Somali-American and owns a day-care center in Minneapolis and sat near the front row at the hearing. "We are being scapegoated … and vilified for political reasons, and it's disgusting."
As a co-founder of Minnesota's largest association of minority-owned day-care providers, Hashi has spent much of the past three years trying to change public perceptions of their businesses. She started at a difficult time: A series of high-profile criminal prosecutions involving Somali-owned day cares put the industry on the defensive and led to heightened scrutiny from the state. Regulators found incidents of overbilling and that some providers were recruiting parents as employees on the condition that they enroll their children using public subsidies.
Since then, her organization has pushed to shore up quality by educating providers on regulatory compliance and expanding participation in Minnesota's child-care quality ratings system. It has also attacked the stigma head-on by kicking out owners suspected of fraud. Her group, the Minnesota Minority Childcare Association, even worked with state officials on ways to detect fraud and kickbacks.
Yet Hashi and other Somali day-care owners feel their voices have gone largely ignored in the wake of a recent television news report suggesting rampant fraud in the state's child-care subsidy program. The widely publicized report alleged that Minnesota refugee families are taking suitcases full of cash to Somalia and Middle Eastern countries where terrorist groups are active.
The report has roiled Somali day-care operators and their family clients across the state, just as many felt they were finally beginning to emerge from a cloud of suspicion. In April 2016, Abdirizak Gayre of Minneapolis and Ibrahim A. Osman of New Hope were charged with an extended fraud against the child-care assistance program. Using secret cameras, investigators found 1,673 incidents in which their day-care center claimed children were in attendance when records showed they were actually absent.
A half-dozen similar cases led to a series of meetings between the state Department of Human Services, which administers the child-subsidy program, and child-care providers who serve Somali children, as well as training sessions to educate providers about licensing rules, background studies laws and fraud.
"There was a shadow over us then, and now that shadow has grown much larger," said Isaak Geedi, chairman of the Minnesota Minority Childcare Association.
In 2012, Hashi and several close relatives founded First Choice Child Care Center in Minneapolis, investing their entire savings — more than a quarter-million dollars — to prepare a facility and hire experienced staff, which now cares for about 75 children. As Hashi pointed out, high-quality preschool is crucial for a group of young children who come from homes where English is not the main language spoken.
On a recent afternoon, a group of two dozen preschoolers — some dressed in brightly colored hijabs and floral dresses — marched in unison with their hands placed on each others' shoulders through their tidy classroom. Moments later, each child was calmly sitting with pencils behind small desks, writing out names for pictured objects.
Hashi, whom many of the children affectionately call "hooyo," or "mother" in Somali, paced between the desks, checking their progress.
When carts of pizza and fruit cocktail arrived at dinner time, Hashi called out to the children, "Did you all wash your hands?"
"Yes!" the children yelled.
"Are you ready to eat?" she asked.
"Yes!" they yelled, throwing up their hands.
"I have a great passion for this work, so when people say we are stealing from the government, it hurts me right here," Hashi said, pressing her hand against her heart.
Hashi challenges the idea that Somali day-care owners are enriching themselves through state child-care subsidies. The monthly subsidies, which amount to about $600 per child, do not cover the cost of one-on-one tutoring, meals, the volumes of coursework, and the other learning accessories, including more than three dozen iPads.
"People don't understand how big of an investment this is," said Nasro Abshir, 26, daughter of Hashi and a supervisor at the center. "Every cent that we get from [the child-subsidy program] is reinvested directly into the children."
On Thursday evening, the first day of Ramadan, a group of about 40 Somali-American day-care center owners and their relatives gathered for a hastily arranged meeting at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, in south Minneapolis. The focus was the television news report, and the likely backlash by lawmakers and state regulators.
Many challenged the accuracy of the TV report, and complained bitterly of the relentless focus on Somali-owned providers. According to the Department of Human Services, payments on behalf of Somali children account for just 28 percent of the roughly $250 million in annual payments made through the child-care assistance program.
Even so, Hashi and other Somali-American owners have addressed the complaints head on. They urge their members to join the state's "Parent Aware" ratings system, which gives close scrutiny of classroom quality and school management. Today, about 80 percent of the association's membership participates in the program, said Geedi.
The group has also been aggressive about alerting the state to fraudulent providers, and kicking out members that are suspected of bilking the state, he said. Since 2016, six providers have been pushed out of the group, Geedi said.
"We've come a long way toward establishing uniform standards," he said. "But there is still a lot of work to be done around building public trust."