published Friday, July 5th, 2013

A home and hope: Habitat for Humanity helps South Sudan refugees start over

By Millie Smith, Correspondent
Baja Dalla, a Sudanese refugee living (right), stands outside his home with his children and friends on Wednesday.
Baja Dalla, a Sudanese refugee living (right), stands outside his home with his children and friends on Wednesday.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
  • photo
    Baja Dalla holds his son Jonah, 1, outside his home on Wednesday. Dalla was meeting with freelance reporter and former Habitat for Humanity worker Millie Smith.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

Baja Dalla’s early childhood memories come easily: Life in a village in South Sudan, evenings spent around a dinner prepared by his mother for 10 family members; hunting and fishing with his father by his side.

Mostly, though, there are memories of time, time to be a boy and time to imagine how to be a man.

But time and family were taken away when Muslim raiders forced his Christian family and village members to flee their homes. The memories of that journey don’t come as easily.

Not even sure how old he is — United Nations documents say he was born in 1983 — Dalla can’t remember how or when almost all of his family members died during the long exodus. He reluctantly remembers the scene of rebels throwing children, alive, into flaming huts. Almost as a prayer, he says he is not sure if those children were his brothers or sisters. Even more reluctantly, he remembers his mother lying down to die when she could not take another step toward the refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Only one memory of the period is clear to Dalla: The day his last living family member, his father, died not long after they finally arrived at the camp. And, Dalla, who thinks he was eight or nine at the time, clearly remembers feeling all alone in the world for the first time.

That feeling of loneliness would stay with Dalla for the next 10 years of his life as a refugee. Though time was all he had on his hands, life only seemed to begin again for him with his award of resettlement to Chattanooga in 2006.

For Dalla, who married and had a baby just before resettling to the United States, coming here seemed like a chance to dream and have a family life again. But even after arriving, life was hard. He worked the graveyard shift for $8 an hour and saw his dreams of an education and a fuller, reinvented life slowly vanishing.

“For about the first six months,” the tall, strong man says, “I dreamed of returning to the life in the refugee camp. It was so hard here.”

He only began to feel true hope and a sense of home when he connected with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga, he says.

“I found out about Habitat through a friend, another refugee, who told me about the program,” Dalla says. “It was only after finding Habitat that I started to feel like I had a family here. ... After I found Habitat, then I started to feel hope.”

Since 2007, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga has built nine homes for refugees from the Congo, Sudan, Burundi and Somalia and, as more refugees sign up for the organization’s homeownership program, the staff recognizes the significant challenges these refugees face.

John Lamb, grants and donor development manager at the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, says refugees face yet another hard journey when they enroll in the Habitat program.

“The simple fact is that these people have not just undertaken the journey of becoming homeowners,” Lamb says. “They have undertaken that journey in the middle of a completely different culture.”

COMING TO AMERICA

Dalla is one of an estimated 70,000 refugees who are annually resettled into communities scattered across the United States. Like other refugees, he was prepared for the culture shock through an integration-training program conducted in Ethiopia. The program encourages refugees to pursue an education and get a job once they are settled in the United States.

For this transition, the refugees are promised six months of support from a local refugee resettlement agency in their destination city. But nationwide, refugees are pushed to achieve early self-sufficiency and, once they are placed in jobs, many lose much of the support they were initially given. For some refugees, it is only when local nonprofit service agencies like Habitat for Humanity bridge the gap of lost support and services that they are able to build a life and find a place in the community.

“I was told there would be six months to help us but when we got here, as soon as I got a job, there was no more help,” Dalla says. “As soon as I had my job, they gave me all of my bills — electricity bills, rent bills — and I had only been here one month.”

Dalla and his family were resettled in the Chattanooga refugee community managed by Bridge Refugee Services, a local agency that is part of a complex structure of nonprofit and faith-based agencies that work under the auspices of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C. Bridge Executive Director Marina Peshterianu says the agency strives to make refugees self-sufficient.

“Based on their health and family context and their unique situation, our goal is to bring them into self-sufficiency as early as possible,” she says. “This is a key to the program: For refugees to reclaim independence as much as to obtain freedom.”

Dalla says Bridge helped him when he first arrived, but after he landed a job with Bridge’s help, the attention dwindled. Bridge workers “called me every now and then and would say, ‘How are you?’” Dalla recalls in his broken English, “but they did not help me very much after that.”

Peshterianu acknowledges that one of Bridge’s main goals is to train refugees not to depend on the agency for complete support, to be self-sufficient “in every sense of the word.”

“The initial period of the resettlement is very difficult, very emotional for both clients and people who are helping them,” she says. “Refugees have to learn to navigate new life in the completely new environment, not all of their expectations can be met, especially at the beginning, and we treat them with respect and understanding, supporting them in this journey.

“It is also very important that Bridge has support and understanding of the community we are working in, as without it we can not provide our clients with services that are so much needed.”

Although organizations such as Bridge help refugees with their first few months in the country, without that community-wide support, refugees may be hard-pressed to find long-term hope and help, according to Errol Kekic, director of the Immigration and Refugee Program at Refugee Council USA, a nationwide coalition focused on aiding refugees once they arrive in America.

Under international law, refugees are only awarded resettlement to the U.S. when they are faced with displacement because of persecution or a threat of persecution. With those conditions as a stipulation for resettlement, refugees by definition often come to their new hometowns with a long history of trauma. And, while assimilating in a new culture, they are pushed towards early self-sufficiency while still processing the trauma.

“Lack of funding and governance [of local agencies] ... creates this push for early self-sufficiency. And there are absolutely no social services for these people in the United States,” Kekic says. “That is why we push for local community partnerships. When churches and other organizations can step in and partner, then we can see what integration can really do for a community. These people have a lot to offer us.”

Local Habitat for Humanity staff echo Kekic’s statements.

“How do we, or other ministries, serve and help establish the refugee population without the assistance of agencies that bring in refugees but do not continue adequate and long term support once they are here?” asks Habitat Director of Construction Services Linda Sneary. “By placing our refugee families among other Habitat homeowners while going through the program, that builds community as they attend classes and work sweat equity hours together. The adage ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ truly applies to our refugee population.”

LOSS & GAIN

Sadu and Helena Bah lost three children in Africa.

The Bahs were diamond miners near the Mano River, which runs through West Africa in Guinea, Sierra Leone and parts of Liberia. In the 1990s, political conflict and greed for the wealth of the diamonds led to civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Hundreds of thousands died, and many more were displaced.

When Sadu saw diamond miners being killed inside the mines, he took his family and fled. In their chaotic flight, as is often the case in refugee displacement, two children were “lost.” Refugees use this term almost to disconnect from the reality that, odds are, their children are dead.

A fourth son, Abu, 11 at the time, was left behind in Guinea. Sadu — who like Dalla doesn’t know his exact age but believes he’s about 51 — explains that he provided airfare to someone to get the child out, but the money was stolen (a common scam in refugee camps) and, eventually, the child surfaced at a U.N. camp.

By the time Abu was found, Sadu and Helena and their two youngest children, Abdulai and Aissatou, were already bound for the U.S. from a refugee camp in Liberia. The children, now 9 and 12, have no memory of Africa or the siblings they left behind.

Under the advice of officials at the camp, Sadu made the difficult decision to leave Abu behind because he was told his chances of getting Abu out would be better once he was settled in the U.S. The boy is still in Africa.

Both Bahs began working once they arrived in Chattanooga. Helena washed laundry and Sadu eventually settled into a job at Pilgrim’s Pride Poultry Plant.

In his rubber work boots, Sadu became a familiar sight for Southside residents as he rode his bike up and down Main Street on his way to and from the plant. When he was not working, Sadu rode his bike to log his sweat equity hours at Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity homeowner families learn and build together, since they’re required to log 350 homebuilding hours and attend homeownership classes. The classes cover financial literacy, cooking, home maintenance and other important life skills.

After the long months of hard work and completing their classes, the Bahs were finally presented with the keys to their front door in 2008. Two years later, they added a baby girl named Bentu to their cozy, three-bedroom home. Only four months after she was born, Sadu opened the front door to hear the screams of Helena from the back bedroom where Bentu’s crib sat.

“I entered and I heard Helena screaming, ‘Bentu! Bentu!’” Sadu says, “ I said, ‘What has happened? Give her to me.’ She would not agree to give the baby to me. I had to force her to give the baby to me, and at that time, I knew, she was gone.

“It hurt me. It hurt my feelings,” he says. “If God gives her to me and God takes her back, what am I to do? I have depression.”

With little savings from his chicken plant job, Sadu scraped together $600 for a coffin and a funeral. It was not enough. Learning of the tragedy, Habitat for Humanity staff donated the rest of the funds for the baby’s funeral.

Habitat members kept a watchful eye on the Bahs in the dark months that followed when Sadu faced the loss of his baby girl, while also fearing he was losing his wife to depression.

On a June day, it is humid and hot in the Bahs’ crowded living room, much like the homes are kept in Africa. And it is dark. No lights are on and the shades are drawn except for the shades beside Helena, who parts a few blinds to stare out the window at a small yard with patches of grass and a vacant crumbling factory building across the street. She sits at the kitchen table while Sadu does most of the talking in the living room.

Daughter Aissatou prepares something to eat in the kitchen where dishes litter the kitchen and sink. Helena is quiet for the most part until she hears Sadu, sitting in the living room surrounded by photos of his children and family on the walls, get a detail of the story wrong. She is quick to remind Sadu that she started work first in the U.S. She found her laundry job before Sadu. Then, after the correction, the vacancy returns to her eyes and she looks back out the window. Helena thinks she is around 35 years old.

Despite a long string of losses, Sadu’s spirit is resilient, but he struggles to understand what happened to his children lost in Africa. He has been told that they are dead, but he feels differently.

“All the time, I can get a feeling,” Sadu said, “In my heart, that they are alive.”

He is certain, however, that Abu, the 11-year-old boy, survived. The boy is now a man at 18 and calls Sadu regularly. He wants to join his family in Chattanooga.

Sadu has never stopped fighting to bring Abu home and says he has asked everyone, including his Bridge Refugee Services caseworker, for help. After finishing another day at Pilgrims Pride, Bah sits on his sofa with son Abdulai playing nearby at his feet. Still in his worn workpants and a faded “Lion King” T-shirt bearing an image of the proud lion father Mombasa, Sadu fights back tears as he tries to express his urgent emotions in broken English

“I cry. I feel bad. We can talk to him sometimes,” Sadu said. “He called here last week. Now, I wait for him to come. I keep asking for someone to help me. I need your help. I need your help.”

For a man with survivor skills like Sadu, admitting need and asking for help are difficult but necessary to navigate the bureaucratic process of bringing his son home. But those well-honed survival skills are a double-edged sword for refugees once they arrive in their new homes in the States, says Kekic.

“Surviving a displacement journey and life in a refugee camp requires survival skills,” Kekic said. “Those skills kick in when thrown into a new world with little support.

“In some instances, some people have spent decades in refugee camps and then they are faced with this harsh reality of having to fend for themselves really quickly.” Kekic said. ”Few manage to get an education.”

LEARNING TO LIVE

Dalla used his survival skills to buy a car, build a home and learn English. Still, his dream of an education that would allow him to practice medicine and return to the Sudan to help his people does not help a refugee become self-sufficient.

In his car that he proudly purchased, Dalla is returning from afternoon errands that he usually runs after sleeping off the night shift. Greeted by his five children, his trademark, broad boyish grin shines down on them as he picks the smallest child up.

Though the three-bedroom Southside home is crowded with children’s toys and furniture, it has been well maintained and the large portrait of the family that was donated by a local artist for their home the day they moved in still hangs on the wall, though two children have been added to the family since the portrait was painted.

On this day, another refugee family is visiting and the small yard is filled with children. Dalla, children hugging at his knees, stands tall on his front porch steps to talk about his hopes and dreams. Though he no longer misses his days in the refugee camp, he admits he still has regrets. Despite the financial needs of his growing family, Dalla does not regret his low wages or the late night hours, he just wishes for more of them, more hours, more time.

“First I built my home, now I want to get my GED; I want to go to college,” Dalla said, “But, when it is working, working, working, there is no time. There is no time to think. You have to be able to think. There is no time for that.”

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