Lili Kouture selling cloth face coverings at a mask distribution event at Fair@44 / credit Carlos Solorio

Annelise Jolley

Refugees who resettle in San Diego face a host of hurdles in building a new life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these hurdles have multiplied. Families have been forced to navigate unemployment, emergency services, childcare, closing and then reopening their businesses—all outside of their native language and culture.

Refugee resettlement organization the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has adapted its services in response to these shifting needs. Within the IRC’s Center for Financial Opportunity, two programs in particular have found new ways to walk alongside clients. These economic empowerment services play a key part in equipping families to build a livelihood in the United States. During the pandemic, they’ve become even more essential.

Support for Home-based Childcare Providers

In 2007, the IRC established its family childcare program. Before the launch, many refugee communities lacked childcare options with the cultural and linguistic competency that parents desired. In City Heights and El Cajon, the IRC developed in-language training classes that walked clients through the process of establishing home-based childcare centers. This program proved to be a powerful model; not only did it generate income and employment, it also offered culturally-relevant childcare among neighboring families. “By having these different integrated programs, we’ve been able to provide multiple families the opportunity to strengthen their household income,” explains senior programs manager Mitch Johnson. Thanks to the program, some parents can work out of the house and leave their kids with trusted providers, while these providers also earn a living from their homes. Today the IRC now helps train and license more than 70 childcare providers every year.

During the pandemic, the family childcare program has shifted its focus to help clients develop digital marketing strategies. “We don’t want our refugee communities to become too saturated with family childcare businesses because it is such a popular option for our women clients,” Johnson explains. “We want to give them the skills and the resources to access other communities that can then take advantage of their services.” By supporting digital marketing initiatives, the IRC hopes that childcare providers can surface from the pandemic with new ways to market their services among families in other communities.

Now that businesses are moving toward reopening, the IRC is also working to equip these providers with the supplies and training they need to safely care for kids once again. The organization recently hosted a mass cleaning supply and PPE distribution event. Thirty-five family childcare centers received the necessary cleaning supplies and PPE equipment to begin reopening. In tandem with this effort, the IRC hosts in-language webinars for providers with real-time county data about how to effectively recover their business.

A Bridge Between Clients and Pandemic Assistance Programs

Another arm of the IRC’s Center for Financial Opportunity is the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which gives entrepreneurs the tools and training they need to access microloans, launch small businesses, and grow their financial futures. Clients who participate in the SBDC run micro-enterprises—businesses that gross less than $250,000 and employ fewer than five employees—such as restaurants, hair salons, and home-based businesses like family childcare. “Many of [our clients] had businesses in their home countries, and oftentimes even have a community of clients or customers ready to purchase their goods or services,” says development and communications manager Laurel Dalsted. “They just need the support to get through the licensing or applications or health department.” Through the SBDC, the IRC empowers these entrepreneurs and innovators to translate their skills and continue their career trajectory in the U.S.

When the pandemic first began, SBDC staff scrambled to help clients complete unemployment and loan applications. During March and April the center experienced an uptick in clientele, as small business owners from the City Heights and El Cajon communities sought assistance. Navigating government financial assistance can be difficult even for native-born residents, and newly resettled business owners face additional complications. “We were hit with a wave of unemployment applications and pandemic unemployment applications and loan applications,” says Johnson. “Many of them didn’t have the language skills to communicate with the Employment Development Department, so we had to constantly communicate and advocate for them.”

Throughout COVID-19, the IRC has served as a bridge between refugee, low-income, and immigrant communities, and government assistance programs. Because many of SBDC’s entrepreneur clients don’t qualify for traditional unemployment, the center has offered in-language webinars in Spanish and all the major refugee languages to walk clients through accessing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The latest step in this process is offering in-language resources for reopening. “As we slowly approach the recovery phase, [our work] has really been about teaching clients how to adapt given the new COVID-19 regulations and providing them with the support—whether it’s through access to capital or grants to procure these resources—so they’re able to reopen,” Johnson says. To that end, the center recently hosted a webinar in Arabic about safely reopening restaurants, and another in Swahili for hair salons.

Lifting Up the Entire Community

Dalsted says that the IRC’s economic empowerment programs have always been responsive to clients’ changing needs. The new initiatives during COVID-19 are just an extension of this ethos. As the IRC continues to walk with clients through an unprecedented time, the organization is keeping an eye on other community members who could benefit from these programs.

“A lot of what we’re doing is highly applicable to not only the refugee community but to other immigrant populations, and low-income or small business communities in general,” Dalsted says. “We’ve really made a point of opening up those services whenever possible to the communities that we work in, to lift up the whole community where refugees are resettling.”

To support the IRC’s services for refugee families and small businesses, donate at, or sign up to volunteer at You can also follow IRC San Diego on Twitter @ircsandiego and Facebook at /IRCSanDiego, and visit to learn more about small business services.

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