Interview by Meghan Tidwell, article by Henry Randolph
Sintayehu Garoma and Birhane Hailu entered Habitat Philadelphia’s homeownership program in September 2010, and in December 2012 we celebrated with them as they purchased their new Habitat house in North Philadelphia.
We recently sat down with Sintayehu and Birhane (and their three-year-old daughter Sifin) as they shared their incredible story—a long journey that began in their native Ethiopia and has brought them to safe, decent, affordable homeownership in Philadelphia.
1. Growing up in Ethiopia
Both Sintayehu and Birhane grew up in the eastern part of Ethiopia. The small communities there are extremely tight-knit—everyone knows everyone. People even leave their front door open throughout the day and encourage any neighbor that passes by to come in and have food and coffee! After completing high school, Sintayehu earned advanced degrees in ecology and education, and began teaching biology at a local college. Birhane’s passion is nursing, so after earning her college degree she began working in a nearby health center, and soon returned to school for more advanced certification.
After graduating school and beginning a job, people in Ethiopia often start sending money back home or supporting younger family members by paying for their tuition. While still in college, Sintayehu and Birhane each began taking care of two of their siblings, bringing them to live in the same house and paying for their education. But eventually Sintayehu and Birhane realized that the best opportunities lay in the United States: if they were able to emigrate, they would be able to look for good jobs here, achieve financial stability for themselves, and begin sending more money back to their relatives at home. Birhane has a distant cousin who lives in Philadelphia, so they knew that if they came to America, they would start here.
And so they applied to become permanent residents of the United States—a long process, but one that they knew would be worth it. Every year the U.S. State Department holds the “Diversity Visa Lottery,” which allows selected individuals from countries around the world to move to the United States on a ten-year permanent visa. In Ethiopia, applicants to the lottery must have completed a certain amount of school, and Sintayehu and Birhane both qualified. They applied in October 2007, and were overjoyed the following June, when they found out that they’d passed the first cut. Then they had to travel to Addis Ababa (the capitol of Ethiopia) for in-depth interviews at the U.S. Embassy. Once they completed this final step they were approved for visas, and prepared for one of the biggest changes of their life. In December of 2008, they left Ethiopia on a plane bound for Philadelphia.
2. Unexpected America
Once they arrived, they stayed with Birhane’s cousin in the city for two weeks before finding an apartment to rent. Despite the promise of possibility, reality set in almost right away. It was difficult to adjust to a completely different culture, let alone begin to feel like they “fit in.” And then came the biggest shock of all. They began to realize that American employers wouldn’t recognize their degrees and work experience—meaning that despite their professional qualifications, no one would hire them for the work they wanted to do. They were suddenly hit hard by the reality that they did not have jobs, money, or close family in the area.
Sintayehu says it best: “We had our expectations of ‘life in America’ smashed. We had to humble ourselves and decide to keep persevering—because it was worth it to be able to better support our families. We both had stable jobs in Ethiopia, and here in America we realized that we would just have to do things differently now, and start from the beginning.” And they did. Sintayehu found a job at a 7-11, took part-time work driving a food-delivery truck, and began teaching GED courses (yes, three jobs!). Birhane also had to start from scratch; she enrolled in classes at Community College of Philadelphia and earned her CNA (Certified Nurse’s Assistant) license. For the first two years of life in America, they both worked so much that they hardly ever saw each other.
When Sifin arrived, they knew that their one-bedroom apartment (which they’d been able to put up with for so long) was not a healthy place for her to grow up. Most of the electrical sockets didn’t work, and neither did the stove (which was a big problem for them because they cook so much). The windows were drafty, and there was so little insulation in the walls that the apartment was impossible to heat—it stayed frigid inside all the winter. Their knew their landlord from church, and also knew that he was struggling financially and couldn’t afford to maintain their apartment. But they had to find a better place to begin their new life as a family.
3. Unlocking doors with Habitat
Coincidentally, two of their friends had recently completed Habitat’s homeownership program; Sintayehu and Birhane went to the home dedication and began to think that Habitat might be the perfect fit for them, too. The application process took several months—it required them to submit paperwork to Habitat, interview with staff, and demonstrate that they would be able to complete the requirements of the program. Fortunately, the experience of applying to the Diversity Visa Lottery in Ethiopia had left them well prepared! Sintayehu and Birhane were thrilled when they found out they’d been accepted to Habitat’s program, and in September 2010 (on top of all of their other commitments) they prepared to embark on yet another journey: completing 350 hours of Sweat Equity work on homebuilding sites, and finally qualifying to purchase their home.
Between work, school, attending church and raising Sifin, it seems like an understatement to say that Sintayehu and Birhane have stayed busy over the past two years. But they couldn’t be happier to now have a safe, decent affordable home—with a functioning stove (which they’ll put to very good use), a washer and dryer of their own, and lots of insulation to keep them toasty in the winter. And, of course, a separate bedroom for Sifin to call her own!
This December, the Garoma-Hailu family marks the end of their five-year journey half-way across the world, and celebrates Christmas in their own home here in Philadelphia. But at the end of one long journey, others are in progress, or even just beginning. Birhane now works as a Nurse’s Assistant at an assisted living home in Bucks County, and is taking evening classes in order to earn certification as a full nurse. This year Sintayehu began pursuing another Master’s Degree so that he’ll qualify for a more advanced teaching position. In December 2013 they’ll be able to apply for full U.S. citizenship, and eventually they hope to bring their parents to the United States. And then there’s Sifin—who will grow up in a stable home, surrounded by love, and learning the rhythms of hard work, tenacity and optimism that her parents embody.
We congratulate the Garoma-Hailu family and wish them the best of luck as they turn one dream after another into reality!