Ines Ben Cheikh: Empowering Immigrant Moms

October 27, 2022

“Nothing is impossible,” Audrey Hepburn once explained. “The word itself says I’m possible.” And Ines agrees with the great actress and advocate for children. Her successful career in the early childhood field has convinced her that “I can do anything if I work hard enough on it,” she says. “I could barely speak English when I came to the U.S. from Tunisia in 2010. I was a stay-at-home mom and had never been out of my homeland before. Now, 12 years later, I have a master’s degree and I’m the site manager for Wayne Metro ACCESS Head Start in Dearborn, MI, where I empower other immigrant moms to also succeed in the early childhood profession.”

And it all began when Ines enrolled her son in Head Start. “I found it very hard to communicate with his teachers, so I started taking ESL classes,” she recalls. But her sense of ambition didn’t stop there. “I also wanted to help my son learn better at home,” she says, “and I wasn’t sure how to do that. But I loved watching how the teachers worked with my son and the other children, and I began thinking about going into the ECE field.”

And there was a lot of food for thought, Ines explains, as she began to explore the early learning field in her new home. “Early childhood education in the U.S. is quite different from that in many other countries. Back where I come from, you might have one teacher in a classroom with 30 to 40 three- and four-year-old children. Early childhood programs in Tunisia don’t provide any meals or parent education programs like they do in the Head Start program my son attended. So, the moms and dads don’t have much chance to learn about the importance of early learning for their children.”

Ines had the chance to dig deep into the field because Zina, her son’s Head Start teacher, told her about the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “Zina is a CDA® holder, and she said, ‘why don’t you go get your credential so you can come work with us,’” Ines recalls. “She gave me all the information about the CDA, and I loved what I heard. I learned that it offers you an opportunity to take courses while doing field work where you can apply your knowledge. It’s not like going to college where you only learn theory and don’t know exactly how it relates to the real world of the early childhood classroom. Besides earning a CDA is a good way to take your first step into a career without going through all the trouble and expense of getting college loans.”

Instead, Ines says that she took Zina’s advice. “She directed me to Najwa Dahdah, CEO of Empowered Child Care Consulting and a trainer who offers CDA classes through Henry Ford College in Dearborn. “Najwa is an Arab American immigrant, like me, so there was a certain comfort level. I finished my CDA training with her in 2017 and that year I got my first job as an assistant teacher with Wayne Metro. A few years later, I earned my bachelor’s degree and was promoted to teacher, leading to an encounter with a child that will always stick in my mind.”

“One little girl always seemed anxious, and she used to come up to me and pull up my head scarf,” Ines recalls. “When I asked her why, she told me she was worried I didn’t have any hair. I told her that I certainly do have hair though you couldn’t see it under my head scarf. Then I went on to explain that I might dress in a different way than she did, come from a different country and have different beliefs. Yet we were the same in the most important ways,” Ines says. And that conversation made her see she could make an impact on children’s lives by bridging cultural gaps to build community in the classroom.

“It’s all about modeling positive actions and using yourself as an example,” Ines says. “It helps to read children’s books about people from different cultures, bring in dolls of different races and explore different parts of the world on Google Earth. In addition, teachers should learn more about the cultures of the children they serve and examine any biases they might have so they can get the right message across to the kids: Our skin colors and clothes might be different. Still, we are a unit in the classroom, and we should love and respect one another.”

Ines wanted to learn new ways to build acceptance and inclusion in the classroom, and that pushed her to advance her education. She enrolled in a master’s degree program in early childhood studies and soon afterward, she was promoted to family advocate at Wayne Metro, a role that allowed her to advocate for the children and families she served. “I found the resources, legal services and other things they lacked to meet their daily needs,” Ines says. And it was work that touched a personal chord because the parents Ines assisted brought her back to her early days in this country.

“Many of the women wanted to work and had already earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees in their place of birth,” Ines says. “But they didn’t speak English, so they couldn’t get a job. So, I helped them enroll in ESL classes and encouraged them to earn a CDA. While they’re working on their credential, Wayne Metro lets them volunteer in the classroom, gives them a stipend and even helps pay for their transportation to the center. Then when they succeed in earning their CDA, we often hire them as assistant teachers.”

One of the women who has followed this career path is Amira, an old friend from back home. “She earned a bachelor’s degree in Tunisia,” Ines explains, “but was anxious about learning English though she had been here for six or seven years. During that time, she depended on her husband to translate for her, and she told me that she worried about what to do if her children got sick and she had to take them to the doctor while he was tied up at work. So, Amira asked my advice and I had her enroll her children in Head Start at Wayne Metro. She also earned her CDA with the program. Now she works for them as an assistant teacher and she’s going on for her AA,” Ines says.

She loves to see successes like this so she gives Head Start moms, like her friend, all the support she can. And she knows how important it is for the women to feel that someone believes in them, she says. “Someone believed in me when I was a stay-at-home mom who could barely speak English, and that person was Jessica Moore, director of the Whole Family Success program for Wayne Metro. She gave me my first job as an assistant teacher, and she has always pushed me to reach higher in my career.”

And Ines has followed her example by serving as a CDA Professional Development Specialist™ for the Council. “I mainly work with Arab American women, who remind me of myself,” she explains. “I know from my own experience in ECE that the women need someone who can serve as an example and encourage them to pursue their goals. It’s something I’ve been happy to do since it’s a way to give back to the people and programs that have helped me.”

Thanks to them, Ines has achieved things she never imagined while growing up in a poor Tunisian home. Neither of her parents went beyond seventh grade, she says. “But now here I am living the American Dream and leading others to also pursue their dreams. I’ve earned a master’s degree, and I manage a Head Start site with a staff of 13.”

These achievements show that immigrants can contribute to this country, though they may look different and speak a different language—a message she conveyed when she spoke at a recent Dearborn town hall. Over 700 people listened as Ines shared her story and talked about all the things she had achieved since she came to the U.S. “I told them that immigrants like myself can be as American as anybody born here in the U.S. We’re not just here to receive. We can also give. And we have knowledge and skills that can produce positive change for the entire nation.”

Ines is now in a position where she can give immigrant moms a chance to make their own contributions. And she says she couldn’t have done it without Head Start. “They helped me earn my CDA, and the free care they provided for my son allowed me to go back to college. They also helped me in a personal way by giving me advice, comfort and moral support. The Head Start program showed me nothing really is impossible if you’re willing to work hard and get an education. And that’s one of the lessons I try to pass on to the immigrant moms whom I’m guiding to success. The other is the importance of being a good person and giving back,” as Ines has done. “That’s the biggest reward of my work,” Ines says. She knows what Audrey Hepburn meant when she said that “you have two hands, one for helping yourself and one for helping others.”


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