By: Sarah Feng, Yale University
At the Phyllis Bodel Childcare Center at the Yale School of Medicine, Safa –– a Sudanese woman who came to New Haven four years ago–– sings Arabic songs to the children, puts stickers on her forehead, and laughs alongside the young children that fill the classrooms, from infants to five-year-olds. As the children arrive at 7:30 in the morning, Safa is one of the first to arrive, check the daily schedule, and go to her assigned classroom. This has become her daily routine since joining Bodel in July of 2021.
Despite the evident language barrier, the children are enamored by her. Safa, who previously worked in childcare in Sudan, seems able to extend the care and love she might give her own children to others, according to those who work with her.
“I love my job because I love kids a lot,” Safa says. “Children are like angels. They have a beautiful childhood.”
Safa joined Bodel's staff in early 2021 after being connected to the childcare center via Havenly and undergoing training. Safa arrived in America from Sudan with her family four years ago. In Sudan, she worked in childcare and early child development, running a center for mothers and babies, and serving as a nurse in children’s hospital wings. But in America, she struggled to find a job. She was unemployed for most of her time here.
“A lot of refugees do not have proof of previous experience, so they can’t work in a formal way,” Safa explained. “So they work informally in small jobs. That’s the only way most refugees can work. There is also the issue of experience and language. That’s the most important thing.”
Before the program, Safa felt limited in her interactions with others and mired in her past. Safa heard about Havenly’s program and decided to join in Sept. 2020, at the height of the pandemic’s uncertainty.
“I made my first step in America through Havenly,” Safa said. “I heard about it because I wanted to support my family and take care of myself.”
During Havenly’s fellowship program, Safa provided childcare to some of the mothers in the program. Through that experience and by working at the Havenly kitchen, she developed a greater understanding of English and came into contact with people she hadn’t met before –– from Latin America, Africa, and even Japan.
After the fellowship ended, Havenly’s team connected her to Miller, who was searching for candidates to fill new spots in Bodel due to the pandemic leaving openings in her staff.
Kyle Miller, the current director of the Phyllis Bodel Childcare Center, has been working in the sector for over 24 years. Ever since working in New York and then in New Jersey at a hospital, she “fell in love” with the work. She came to Bodel because she loved the ratio of staff to children and the support the center provided to the lives of children and their families. She appreciated how child-oriented the philosophy was, based on infant research The ratio at Bodel is 1:3 for infants and 1:4 for preschoolers, and the community of parents and teachers helped propel the institution.
Miller oversaw a DEI push, hiring people from a greater variety of backgrounds to reflect the makeup of the children attending the daycare. Regardless of language or custom, she wanted children to see themselves in the caretakers they were with.
When COVID-19 hit, the pandemic shifted the childcare industry’s makeup: many parents pulled their children from the program because they were working from home, and enrollment numbers dropped, according to Miller. Bodel laid off 12 employees but rehired ten by the start of 2021. Safa was one of the newcomers that was hired in 2021 to work with the infants.
During her first visit, teachers liked Safa right away, Miller said. Two of the long-term teachers immediately engaged with Safa, giving a thumbs-up as she got down on the floor with the children. While some new staff members feel aloof and uncomfortable, Safa seemed to slip into the role naturally.
Despite the language barrier, Safa easily grew to be an important caregiver figure with the infants and collaborator with other staff members. Shelley, her director supervisor, explains that Safa sometimes uses Google Translate for quick messages with other staff.
“Safa is enormously patient and very persistent. If she’s not sure what’s happening, she will ask. That’s why we’re confident that we’re communicating clearly with her,” Shelley said. “She sings songs with the children, even if no children speak Arabic.” In the preschool classroom, working with colors and the names of animals, Safa occasionally teaches the Arabic counterparts of English words; Shelley recalls learning how to say “train” in Arabic.
According to Shelley, the children weren’t able to tell that Safa couldn’t speak the same language as them. Safa could sense what they needed and provide an intent and patient listening ear, and her presence was able to provide love and comfort to the children. That’s exactly what the children need to feel heard and listened to, Shelley said.
“Once, she played for an hour and a half with these three little girls who are about to go to kindergarten,” Shelley said. “Safa sat patiently and played “tea party” with them for an hour. The next day, one of them greeted me with ‘Hi Shelley, where’s Safa?’ The kids have so many things they want to say and share, and Safa is there for them.”
Safa’s English is improving, too. As she reads to the children from books, she intentionally points out each of the words until she feels confident about reading them. She is able to read the daily schedule each morning and put herself in her own classroom.
“[Safa] is one of the most dependable people I have working for me,” Miller said. “It’s hard for her because of the English. She’s getting better and uses a translator app, but even that sometimes does not work. She is very present and fun with the children. She’s on the floor with them and gets silly with them. She really enjoys them and being with them.
In college, Miller majored in linguistics and language development. She believes that language helps provide different perspectives into the world.
“I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and ways of seeing the world and taught to see that there are all kinds of ways to see the world and that they are all legitimate,” Miller says.
Due to the makeup of the Bodel center, Miller hoped for a bi- and trilingual staff so that the children could hear multiple languages and stimulate their language-learning. She explained to us a piece of developmental linguistics.
“When we start to babble, we babble all the sounds possible for human infants,” Miller says. “What happens is we are exposed to language, we hone in on the home language, and we start filtering out all the unnecessary noises, the sounds that we are making, we hone in on the sounds, children are born with this capability.”
Several major studies support Miller’s claim. American adults and infants were tested on how well they could distinguish audio between phonemes that were distinct in Hindi and in Salish. While adults could no longer differentiate because those phonemes were the same in English, infants were able to distinguish between them because they were still developing a sense of which contrasts to hone in on. Similar to language acquisition, if exposed to a variety of cultures when young, infants may develop a greater understanding of the world around them.
As Safa learned English over the course of the last few years, it also became evident that language was not the only way to express love, care or familial connection. Safa has the ability to engage young children and make them feel listened to, at home, and understood. She did this back in Sudan, and she was able to form these same connections here in America. At Havenly, Safa had a space to speak Arabic with the multilingual community in the fellowship, maintaining her original language, while also learning English and the new culture here.
“I thank the daycare family –– Karey, Shelley, and the whole daycare family,” Safa says. “I’ve learned a lot from them about America. If I don’t know something, they encourage me. The kids love me and my spirits have changed a lot.”
Language can be a portal into new cultures, but it isn’t everything we need in order to communicate emotions that are the crux of the human experience. The Phyllis Bodell daycare center, and the Havenly kitchen, are proof that teams and families can grow despite language differences.