To Re-Build, Refugees Build Homes with Habitat for Humanity

Apr 15, 2016

For the hundreds of refugees who resettle in Virginia, home is a place they’ve left behind. For an update on our series on refugees, WMRA’s Jordy Yager has this story about what it takes to build a new home, here in America.

One step at a time, Win Than climbs the stairs inside his new home.

[Sound of Win going up the stairs]

Win and his family don’t live here yet, but every Saturday he joins a Habitat for Humanity construction crew to work on what’s soon to be their very first own home. Win is a 42-year old refugee from Burma. And he’s one of the 28 refugee families in the Charlottesville area that Habitat has helped permanently house over the last decade.

Owning your own home is a crowning moment, for anyone. But especially for refugees, like Win, who have been fleeing persecution for years, sometimes decades. He’s part of the Karen, an ethnic minority in Burma that’s been fighting the government for independence since the 1940’s.

Before he came to Charlottesville in 2005, he lived in several refugee camps. He also tells me he was a lieutenant in the Karen military. About 15 years ago, he was out on foot patrol in Burma when he came across a series of three landmines in the road — one to his right, one to his left, and one, that he didn’t see, behind him.

WIN THAN: I don’t see the bomb, bomb, three bomb. The left side here, right side here, my back here. I don’t see the back, I see the two bombs.

JORDY: So you stepped back?

WIN THAN: Yeah, I step back. The one soldier, he say to me, ‘Brother don’t move, don’t move! Stay!’ Why? ‘You lean on mine, your leg.’ I say, ‘No mine, just two.’ ‘No another one!’ he said me. Okay, okay, I said. I lift my, boom. [Laughs]

Like many refugees I’ve met in Charlottesville, Win has a remarkably cheerful outlook on life, even in the face of extreme hardship, like losing the lower half of his right leg. After five years of using crutches to get around, he’s now got a metal prosthetic limb. He works as a technician at the UVA hospital. And perhaps most importantly, he no longer lives in a plastic-roofed bamboo hut in a refugee camp. Instead, this July, he’ll be moving his wife and their two boys into their new home, which they plan to own.

[Sound of a circular saw]

It’s a beautiful Saturday and several dozen Habitat staff, volunteers, and partner families are on the construction site. In total, Habitat is helping construct 18 subsidized houses in this new neighborhood, while Southern Development Homes is building nearly 30 more to sell at market-rate, which will result in something that Habitat heavily supports: mixed-income housing. Another of Habitat’s trademarks is educating their homebuyers about complex topics like mortgages, adjustable interest rates, and credit scores. They also ask families to pitch in with on-site construction help, or “sweat equity” as they call it.

WIN THAN: Every week on Saturday I work the Habitat home, I get hour, you know?

DAN ROSENSWEIG: What’s really important to understand is that Habitat is a partnership.

Dan Rosensweig is the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville.

ROSENSWEIG:  We don’t build homes for people, we build homes with people. We work side-by-side with families who want a better future for themselves and for their children. They earn a zero interest loan for volunteering for sweat-equity, indexed to what they can afford to pay. And we remain the note holder so that if a family comes to us 10 years from now and is having a hard time paying the mortgage, because they have a family illness or something like that, we’ll work with them to make sure that they succeed.

[Sound of Habitat staff advising a volunteer on painting the ceiling]

Today, Win is painting.

[Sounds of Win painting]

SUSAN PAYTON (Habitat staff): Win’s super fast, I can’t even keep up with you Win. [Win laughs]

But Win’s not painting his soon-to-be house. He’s painting a neighbor’s soon-to-be house. And that’s the other thing about Habitat, you get to know all of your neighbors months before you actually move in. That’s huge for refugees, who often feel isolated in the U.S. In Win’s neighborhood, six families have moved in so far, and today their kids race up and down the streets on their bikes. Win and his wife have two boys.

AMY ALLAMONG: He does, he has two. And Johnny, his youngest, just had his 5th birthday party, actually last Saturday.

Amy Allamong is a Volunteer Engagement Associate for Habitat.

ALLAMONG: Win bought everybody on site pizza and brought his two sons, Johnny and Thang, and they came out and celebrated Johnny’s birthday on the site, in their house, with the volunteers, last Saturday, it was really cool.

On Win’s lunch break, he takes me on a brief tour of his house.

[Sound of Win talking about his house]

The electrical work is done, the drywall is hung, and full buckets of joint compound huddle in the center of the first floor bedroom. Win says he’s not sure which bedroom he’ll end up taking. Each of his sons will have their own room on the second floor. And he’s considering taking one of the other two upstairs bedrooms, to be close to them. But climbing the stairs is hard on his leg, and so the bedroom on the first floor is appealing too.

For now, he’s taking it one step at a time. And that means getting back to painting. After all, July is just around the corner.

JORDY: Are you excited?

WIN THAN: Yeah, excited. [Laughs]