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A Nomad No Longer: From fleeing the forest to owning a home

Posted on December 12th, 2012.

The Alliance for African Assistance’s Individual Development Accounts (IDA) program helps clients match their savings for a particular goal. The excitement in this programs stems from the results, namely clients starting their own businesses, furthering their education, and even buying their first homes. Becky Odyek, the Economic Development Coordinator is paramount in the success of the program that has just concluded its second year of existence at the Alliance.

With Becky’s expertise and strategic planning and the help of partnerships with Remax United and Prime Lending, Pastor William and his wife Len were able to purchase their very first home. I had the opportunity to pay the Pastor a visit on the first day of home ownership. We were joined by Eric Colona, a Realtor for Remax United, Becky Odyek, and Michael McChristian, the lead-coordinator from Prime Lending. The day was crisp and breezy, the sun lazily falling behind William and Len’s new house.

The group was merry in their accomplishment and excitedly telling me all about the home-buying process. Eric Colona declared that “language was the only barrier, everything else went smoothly.” Eric insisted that Becky and the Alliance were very helpful and hands-on. In fact, he laughed, “Becky wanted to see all the paperwork and was involved with all the scheduling, they were very thorough.” Eric spoke at two home buying workshops prior to Pastor William closing escrow. William explained that the Burmese do not enjoy paperwork and that the huge stacks they had to deal with for home buying were very daunting. But he also insists that all Burmese can accomplish what he has, and that Becky, her partners, and William himself will be there to help walk them through the process.

Michael McChristian agreed that experience is challenging but the Burmese community is up for it. “With Becky’s attention and patience and the help of translation it’s all possible!” he exclaimed. Michael wanted to add that Prime Lending appreciates its partnership with Becky and the Alliance and hopes to continue the great work they’re doing. Currently they are serving over 20 refugee IDA participants who are interested in home buying, and are looking to increase this number. Becky equally appreciates the partnerships and insists that Michael was a focused team leader while working with a population that faces many barriers. “He took the time to understand the needs in order to best serve this refugee population. He tweaked his strategies for home buyer’s education” she stated. This included creating pictographic concepts instead of simply facts, and translating key materials. Pastor William joked that Michael’s English was too good so Becky had to interpret Michael’s English into simple English for the Pastor to understand and translate the message to the Burmese clients.

It is apparent that this major accomplishment for the IDA program was a group effort and would not be possible without all the wonderful people involved. However, the foundation of this story revolves around a couple from very humble roots, achieving a dream they never knew they had.

Len, Pastor William’s wife was speechless and disbelieving, pinching her own arm, asking if this might be a dream. Pastor William and his wife are from Myanmar, formally Burma, which is currently facing a military coup and mass genocide of the Karen people. “There is a lot of danger to preach the gospel,” he admitted. Given that Pastor William is indeed a Pastor, he had to flee to Thailand and Malaysia. Unlike many refugee experiences, Pastor William did not live in a refugee camp but spent 5 years living in a forest, running from place to place to elude the government. He was essentially a nomad, always on the run as the authorities searched for him, eventually inciting the Malaysian government to follow him. While fleeing, William would try to spread the word of God to other refugees who were also in fear for their lives. “The mosquitoes were my most faithful in the forest” he joked, “if we all loved each other like the mosquitoes love us, we’d be fine.”

While on the run, William never dreamed of coming to the U.S., he thought he would help refugees in the forest until he was captured or killed. He was determined to do what he could in the meantime. He collected donations and went to detention centers and prisons to bring refugees food and money for their ransom, even offering security for those wrongfully detained. He never knew if he would see those he helped again.

During this time period, the government back in Myanmar was harassing his wife and four children for his whereabouts, compelling him to send for his loved ones. Upon reuniting, the

UNHRC discovered his case and referred him and his family for refugee status. They arrived in San Diego in June three years ago. That first week of resettlement marks the only Sunday he has ever gone without preaching the gospel. To reach his community, he worked as an Assistant Case Manager at the Alliance for one year, but ultimately felt restricted by the nature of the job. He voluntarily resigned and continued with full time pasturing, allowing him to assist his community through his true passion—preaching. Pastor William has been an enormous advocate for the Karen community here in San Diego. He started the Burmese Community Church as well as the San Diego Myanmar Community Church. Pastor William said he trusts in God, “I trust that God shows me the way when the time is right: God introduced the IDA program to me when my wife and cousin attended a Financial Literacy class and needed his help with interpretation.”

William and Len never dreamed of owning a house until the Alliance and Becky. He explained that the IDA program helps clients outline a goal for which they are saving, such as education, a business, a car, or buying a home. Pastor William was the only one to put buying a home as a goal, “just to be different from the other Burmese who need only cars for work!” He didn’t realize it would actually happen, nor did he anticipate the enthusiasm, success and independence it would bring him. Slowly and surely, they went through the home buying process with Becky as the mediator and the glue. Pastor recalled that as the purchasing process was in Escrow, he sat down with his wife one evening and talked about what kind of feelings they should be having about the prospects of owning their own home. They both found it hard to label just how exactly they were feeling:  “Should we be happy? But we are not yet because the process is too complicated. Should we be sad? No, we cannot because a house is a big blessing. So what should we feel?”

At this point, Becky chimed in, “with that being said, let’s go back to the office and sign some more papers!” To which Pastor William joyously responded “Wait, let me close my house!”

Pastor William and his wife Len locked up their newly-owned, three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car-garage home with a beautiful yard, smiles never once leaving their faces.