Nine years ago, when Yohani and Vestine Dadara came to America, they wanted a place to call home. The Dadaras long journey began in their home country of Burundi when war in that nation forced them to flee to Rwanda, only to find more war and a second flight to Tanzania seeking safety.
From Tanzania the Dadaras were approved to come to the United States and were resettled in Geneva by World Relief and were served by volunteers Greg Giel and Mary Pat Wright. Since the family’s arrival, Greg and Mary Pat have stayed connected with the Dadaras and have walked with them through the process of finding a home.
Soon after arrival, the Dadaras had an apartment to rent, work to support the family and, with the help of volunteers and new friends, they dealt with the daily challenges of adjustment to a new country and culture. But, this large family with six kids needed more room. They also wanted something to call their own, someplace permanent after years of seeking safety and moving from one place to another.
Buying a home is difficult for many people, but it is especially difficult for refugee families who do not understand the complicated process of home-buying in the U.S. Even though Yohani and Vestine were both working and could pay the rent and bills, there was no money left over to save for a down payment on a house.
That is where partnership with Emmanuel House changed the story for this family. Aurora-based Emmanuel House began when its founders, Rick and Desiree Guzman, saw the challenge it is for refugees to put down permanent roots in a community. Today Emmanuel House helps World Relief clients and other low income neighbors purchase a home, build assets and a way out of poverty through Networked Savings.
“Networked Saving makes it possible for low-income, working families to save for a down payment on a home while still paying market-rate rent,” Emmanuel House’s Lissa Fecht explains. “One of the largest challenges refugee families face when trying to purchase a home is their ability to pay for a down payment and fees associated with closing on a home.”
Emmanuel House owns three multi-family residential properties and the commercial property where World Relief’s Aurora office is located. Networked Savings participants can live at an Emmanuel House property and pay market-rate rent for 18 months. Participants exit Emmanuel House with a full year’s rent in savings, ready to purchase their first home.
“It was easy because we were able to get help,” Vestine explains through her son Joseph’s interpretation. “Those 18 months, everything we were making; all the money we were paying in rent was going towards a down payment for a new home.”
Saving for the down payment was only the first part, finding the right house for a family of eight was a second big challenge, but Emmanuel House continued to help. “It was hard,” Vestine says. “We had to pick a house that was the right size but also the right price.”
“Families understand how to navigate their own culture’s system of ownership but have very little understanding of credit, loan qualifications, budgeting and maintenance of homes built in varying climates with different plumbing and electrical systems,” Lissa explains. “Emmanuel House addresses this gap by requiring one-on-one homebuyer’s and credit counseling, classes on budgeting and real estate and a team of experts to walk alongside a family getting ready to purchase a house.”
“We had issues with credit,” Yohani adds. “Because we were newer to the country, we didn’t have loans to build our credit. So we had to go through that process.”
“It’s great,” Yohani says. “And it’s good for the kids. If you’re living in an apartment, the neighbors hear you and at the time there were a lot of little ones jumping up and down.”
“If you are able to get into the program, you should take advantage,” Vestine says. “If you work hard and you save, you can put down a good down payment and reduce your monthly payment.”
The Dadara family was resourceful and took advantage of tremendous support from Emmanuel House and from friends they have accumulated throughout their years in the United States. That resourcefulness and support are crucial in buying a home.
Yohani suggests that if you are in the program, you should get a lot of help picking the right house. “Because we’re coming to a new country, a new culture; first homes are hard because if you make mistakes, they can affect you. There are a lot of people helping out, volunteers. Get to the right people who have the information to help you.”
“Especially for families who have lost not only their home, but their country, buying a home appears to bring a sense of “settled-ness,” pride and peace,” Lissa says. “When families first walk me through their new homes, I can see the dignity and pride that comes from working hard and putting their own stakes in a community.”
Dr. Issam Smeir has worked with World Relief DuPage/Aurora Counseling Center for 15 years, and this month he was recognized by the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA as a "Defender of Human Rights" for his work in treating refugees, victims of torture, and severely abused and neglected children. This center, named for former President Jimmy Carter, selects Defenders of Human Rights for its annual conference. Issam was asked to present to the group of honorees on his work in Narrative Exposure Therapy to help refugees heal from the trauma they have experienced.
Issam got to meet President Carter when he came to the conference to give his keynote address on World Refugee Day. This was a special event as it was President Carter who signed the Refugee Act of 1980, the law which still serves as the basis for the U.S.’s humanitarian refugee resettlement program.
Issam, who is originally from Jordan and continues to travel regularly to train church leaders and mental health practitioners in the Middle East, is also co-author of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis, along with Matthew Soerens and World Relief President Stephan Bauman. The book from Moody Press is available now for pre-order from various retailers like Moody Press and Amazon, and will be released on July 5.
Even though families like the Dadaras (story above) were forced to flee Burundi, World Relief is working on the ground in that country to empower the churches there to help change lives.
World Relief Burundi has been actively working with local churches to come together and form Church Empowerment Zones. This means that all church leaders in a geographic area have come together across denominations to lead their communities in physical and spiritual transformation. The leaders identify volunteers from their churches who are then trained by World Relief staff to teach on basic child health and nutrition, sustainable agricultural, the importance of saving money together in community, and through all of these to share the love of Christ.
Goreth is a volunteer in Burundi who has led a savings group through 3 savings cycles, which is almost 3 years. Personally she has been able to acquire three goats thanks to the savings group. The group focuses not only on the personal opportunities for members, but this group has also used its collected savings to fund schooling for three orphans who had been forced to drop out. Goreth and her group are just one of the other 450 other savings groups (over 10,000 members) in the church empowerment zone who are persevering, not just to make a better life for their own families, but also for their neighbors.
Learn more about World Relief Burundi.
WRDA is the grateful recipient of a new grant from The Chicago Community Trust. This generous $25,000 grant, awarded through the Trust’s Unity Fund, will support refugee families as they begin their new lives here in the suburbs of Chicago. Specifically, this grant will fund a portion of WRDA’s Job Class, which helps refugee adults prepare for and find that first critical job here in the U.S. The grant will also support WRDA’s services that allow refugees to access the resources they need to provide for their families until they begin earning a steady income.
This grant has come at a particularly important time, as WRDA has recently lost significant funding for both of these programs due to the ongoing state budget crisis here in Illinois. In the midst of this crisis, we are blessed to have churches, individuals, and private foundations like The Chicago Community Trust who ensure that the families seeking refugee from persecution and war receive a warm welcome and the support they need to rebuild their lives.
To learn more about the Trust, please visit Chicago Community Trust.