Yagoub and Tayba will soon have something they haven’t had since they fled war-torn South Sudan roughly six years ago – a house of their own.
“My family will be so happy when they know that they live in their own home, and it will secure my family’s future,” Yagoub said of the four-bedroom house he is working with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga Area to build this summer.
Yagoub, Tayba and their three children, ages 2 to 8, have been living in rental properties in Chattanooga since Bridge Refugee Services helped them resettle in February 2016. Before that, they lived in a refugee camp in Jordan after civil war drove them out of South Sudan in 2013.
“They sent the military to kill us one by one,” Yagoub said in a video highlighting how Habitat brings people together to build homes, communities and hope. “They destroyed our houses. Everybody was killed, even old men and women and children.”
Yagoub’s oldest son died 45 days after they arrived in Jordan.
“I don’t know the reason why he died,” he said in the video.
A daughter was born in Jordan while they waited for their refugee resettlement application to be approved.
Bridge has been resettling Sudanese refugees for two decades. So, when the family arrived in Chattanooga, they were welcomed with open arms by a well-established Sudanese community, said Jennifer Croxall, a Bridge case manager.
“Yagoub is one of the leaders of the group now,” she said. “They are the sweetest, most humble, helping family. Yagoub comes to the airport at midnight when we have new arrivals from Sudan. Tayba cooks meals for the Sudanese families. … They are so willing to help other clients and they always have a smile on their face.”
While Bridge arranges housing for its new arrivals, Jennifer said they also educate clients about Habitat’s mission, which shares with Bridge’s mission a desire to instill hope in those they serve.
“We have maybe 16 other families that had Habitat houses built,” she said.
The Habitat office in Knoxville has also helped Bridge clients in Knoxville become homeowners. Executive Director Drocella Mugorewera, a former refugee from Rwanda, and her family have lived in a Habitat home since 2013.
“It’s been a very positive experience to work with immigrant families,” said Phil Trammell, vice president of development for Habitat’s Chattanooga office. “So much of a part of Habitat’s mission is to embrace them and help them get established. Bridge is our connection to that immigrant family in a lot of ways.”
Tenasa McGhee, director of family and mortgage services with Habitat’s Chattanooga office, said both organizations work well together because they’re both focused on helping families reclaim their lives.
“What Habitat does with Bridge, we give them a sense of security,” Tenasa said. “We help them build roots.”
Having a home, she and Phil said, are an important part of that process.
“A quality house, a quality environment makes for quality families,” Tenasa said. “When they have something concrete they can call their own and can raise their kids in, the kids end up being more prosperous. We see kids evolve into different personalities when they have shelter. That’s one great attribute of both programs.”
Bridge staff helped Yagoub, who works at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant, and Tayba complete their application to become a Habitat family. They were approved for the 18-month program in June 2019.
They then began Habitat’s extensive homeowner education program and rallied their friends and families to help them meet their “sweat equity” requirements before construction could begin on their home.
Tenasa said the family was particularly motivated, completing the required 200 volunteer hours in record time.
“They’re very dedicated,” she said.
Habitat employs its own construction crews, but also relies on volunteer labor to build its houses. The organization broke ground on Yagoub and Tayba’s house on March 7 – just in time for the COVID-19 outbreak to force them to halt volunteer participation with builds, Phil said.
Yagoub and Tayba’s house had also been selected for Habitat’s Women’s Build program in which teams of women serve as the primary builders.
“We had Women Build teams that had signed up to help on weekends and we shut that down in March, as well,” Phil said.
While Habitat, considered an essential business, continued to use its construction staff to work on its current projects, Phil said the organization was hit with a second obstacle in April – a tornado that ripped through parts of Chattanooga.
“Despite the troubles we’ve had to go through, it’s been a positive outcome,” he said. “The only difference is it’s been a little slower.”
Phil said the organization has plans to bring its Women’s Build teams back in small groups this month, though they might have to split the participants into a morning shift and afternoon shift to manage social distancing requirements on the job site.
“We’re going to be able to stay on schedule for this family, keep our people employed and get volunteers re-engaged, so it’s kind of a win-win-win,” Phil said.
If all goes well, Phil said the family can move into their new home by July or early August.
“We are so excited that they already started building our home,” Yagoub said. “We are waiting patiently to move to our new home. It makes our children so happy.”
Since Habitat Chattanooga’s founding in 1986, the organization has constructed more than 280 new homes in the community, 71 home repair projects and 11 aging in place projects. The Knoxville office, which opened in 1985, has served nearly 700 families.
“Being able to provide stable homes is not only good for the people you’re helping, but it’s good for the community,” Phil said.
Yagoub said in the video that he fled Sudan because he could see there was no future for his family there. His efforts since then, with Bridge and now Habitat’s help, have been singularly focused.
“I want to build a future for them,” he said.