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'One day it will be easier': US immigrant mothers struggle to homeschool amid pandemic Open in fullscreen

Brooke Anderson

'One day it will be easier': US immigrant mothers struggle to homeschool amid pandemic

For female immigrants in America, the challenges from Covid have been more severe [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 March, 2021

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With no extended family or lifelong friends nearby and language barriers, homeschooling during the pandemic has proven particularly difficult for immigrant mothers.
The coronavirus has widened America's gender inequality. Many more women than men have left the workforce to take care of their children. In September alone, 865,000 women left the labor force – more than four times the number of men who left. 

For women immigrants, the challenges can be far starker: no extended family or lifelong friends living nearby to help with their children, a new professional environment, not to mention a new language – all in a country without much of a social safety net.

For Mai Osman, a single mother of two boys who immigrated from Sudan to Los Angeles, the pandemic disrupted a life that had taken years to pull together.

In 2015, after arriving in America with little more than her basic belongings, Osman found a job as a baker, leaving behind her background as an architecture graduate to support her family.

She recalls her sons' first day of school, when she didn't know where to buy them clothes or school supplies.

They eventually adjusted to their new life, as her sons became good students, while she tapped into her skills as an architect to build elaborate birthday and wedding cakes.

When the pandemic hit, they all had to readjust again. But this time it was even harder. Osman was laid off from her job at the bakery, and her sons, 12 and 13, did not take well to virtual learning.

For women immigrants, the challenges can be far starker: no extended family or lifelong friends living nearby to help with their children, a new professional environment, not to mention a new language

As she worked to get on her feet with her new at-home bakery business, she struggled to familiarise herself with the computer system of her sons' school so she could monitor their work.

"In the beginning, I didn't have a computer. Not everyone has a computer at home. I'm a single mom with two kids. It's been like hell for me," she says.

"I told the teachers: I don't understand anything about the subjects. Don't expect me to do the homework with them. I can only try to encourage them to do their homework."

With help from a friend, she got a used computer and learned how to use the school's online system for parents. 

"The kids know now that I'm in charge. They know I know if they're doing the work. We're doing good now," she says. "They're on track."

It's still a daily struggle. She wishes the government would do more to help families get through the pandemic, pointing out that spending all day home has meant much higher utility bills. 

"I feel like it's hard for people here to understand how hard it for us to just to live a normal life. We try our best. It's not easy."

For now, she is grateful that her sons are now keeping up with their homework, and that she has a steady clientele of good customers.

It was very scary in the beginning. One day it will be easier

"It was very scary in the beginning. One day it will be easier," she says. "I love the challenge of baking. When they give me a picture, I like to bake the exact picture."

For Reham Kassem, also living in southern California, who came from Egypt nearly 20 years ago with her husband, the pandemic has also been a trying time. 

She has been staying home with her three daughters, ages 11, 13 and 17, along with her husband, who has been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Her oldest daughter has a developmental disability that makes her non-verbal. The pandemic has required extra work to keep her in a routine, including the daily support of behavioural specialists. 

Meanwhile, her middle daughter was supposed to experience the milestone of starting high school this past year, but she has instead started her new school from home. At the same time, she got depressed because she gained weight from not being able to go outside to exercise. 

"It's been a huge and dramatic change in everyone's life. It hasn't been easy. I got depressed as well, but I was trying to support everyone's well-being. My husband is working from home, he's a computer engineer. He has to do his work in quiet. Everyone is locked down in their own world," says Kassem.

She says the only time she has to do her own work is early in the morning before her family wakes up and then late at night after they go to sleep. Like many immigrants, she has no family nearby to help. 

Even with the major challenges she faces, she is grateful for some small blessings. Her boss has given her a flexible schedule. And her middle daughter, whose lunch she used to prepare daily, now makes her own lunch. She also now does her homework without help. She says they've all learned new skills.

"Coping in the beginning looked impossible. It felt like the end of life. I was trying to take it day by day," she says. "Today is first day back to school [on a hybrid schedule]. I'm a little anxious. I believe everybody's much stronger." 

For Nadine Boksmati-Fattouh and her husband, both from Lebanon, who moved from Bahrain to the US in 2012 and now live in northern Virginia, their priority during the pandemic has been making sure their two daughters, 6 and 10, are in good mental health. 

I come from the Middle East. I'm used to not going to school. I grew up in a war zone

"I come from the Middle East. I'm used to not going to school. I grew up in a war zone. For people around here, this is new," she says. "At the same time, this is fine, we'll get over it. We can get through a lot. I wanted my kids to not feel this kind of panic."

While she considers herself fortunate, the last year has still been unusually challenging. She has had to help her children with their schoolwork while keeping up with her own remote job, as a consultant with Bahrain's ministry of culture.  

"It will help them when they grow up, just to toughen up a bit. I was very independent when I was growing up. I want my kids to be just like me," says Boksmati-Fattouh, who left Lebanon after college to do her PhD in archaeology at Cambridge, adding that she was fortunate to have the encouragement of her husband.  

"I'm raising my kids to be strong women and live their own lives," she says. "My mum was very independent and strong. I got this from her. I always tell my kids this is how we should be. We fall, we stand up. They're both very smart. I hope they do more than me."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington D.C., covering US and international politics, business and culture.

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