A Home of Their Own

A Home of Their Own

Written by John Curtis / Photography © John Curtis
On December 25th of last year, Laye Camara and Fatoumata Sylla, along with their two children, moved into their new home in New Haven. They had arrived in New Haven just over three years earlier with the help of IRIS, after a decade as refugees in Morocco. They are the first IRIS clients to own a home through the partnership of Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven and its Shoreline community build group, Raise the Roof.
“This is my home, it’s my home,” Camara said of the two-story home he helped build in the city’s Hill neighborhood. It was a welcome change from the two-bedroom apartment they lived in nearby. They have more room and the monthly mortgage is less than they were paying in rent.
“It’s a very nice house. Thank you, God,” said Sylla, as she prepared a stew of fish, cassava, and peanut sauce in her spotless kitchen on a recent Sunday afternoon. “We came here and in three years we have a new house. I am going to bless God.”
Both are from Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa where coups, military rule, and political violence have been the norm. Camara was a student when political problems forced him to leave.
Since arriving in the United States, Camara has worked in a restaurant and a local medical device company. He is now a driver for Uber. Sylla runs her own hair salon in West Haven, specializing in African braids.
Starting last summer, Camara, Sylla, and friends contributed 400 hours of sweat equity to the three-bedroom house. Working alongside Habitat staff and volunteers, Camara wielded hammers, saws, and screwdrivers from Mondays to Wednesdays, then spent the rest of the week, including Sundays, driving for Uber. With his flexible schedule, Camara takes the children, six-year-old Marie-Pierre and three-year-old Yousouf, to school and medical appointments.
“They had a balancing act going on because they had two small children,” said Frank Walsh, a volunteer with Raise the Roof who served as the family’s partner on the construction project. “It must have been stressful for them to get in the hours and meet family requirements and job requirements. They certainly managed.”
The homebuilding was a joint effort of Habitat and Raise the Roof, which has sponsored and helped build 16 homes over 16 years. Prospective homeowners with Habitat contribute sweat equity on their home and on neighbors’ homes. After completing the required 400 hours and homeownership classes, families purchase a Habitat home with a 25-year, no-interest mortgage.
Houses are built from scratch, Walsh said, following a standard Habitat footprint—two stories, three bedrooms, with a kitchen and a living and dining area on the first floor. Both parents are still learning English, so when it came time to apply to Habitat for Humanity, they got help from John Nihoul, a retired engineer who has volunteered with IRIS as an interpreter, driver, and cultural companion. He met Camara at the IRIS offices when he heard him speaking French to his daughter. Nihoul is Belgian and French is his first language. Camara and his family had recently arrived, so Nihoul helped by interpreting as needed. When Sylla was in the hospital for Yousouf’s birth, Nihoul took care of Marie-Pierre. Although he has since moved away from New Haven, the family still calls to wish him well on holidays and on his birthday.
“He has quite a history of rising up to the occasion,” Walsh said of Camara. “It’s a wonderful story of how in the few years since he came to this country, he now owns a home. That is remarkable in and of itself.”

IRIS & Co-sponsors Welcome African Families Seeking Asylum

IRIS & Co-sponsors Welcome African Families Seeking Asylum

March 2020
Written by John Curtis / Photography © John Curtis

On the evening of February 7, a flurry of snow greeted a Greyhound bus as it pulled into the station on Union Avenue in New Haven. The arrival marked the end of a 53-hour ride from McAllen, Tex., and, for two families on board, an odyssey that started years earlier in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their journeys brought them to Brazil, then to South America’s northern reaches, across the deadly Darién Gap, and up through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border.

At the bus station, staff from IRIS and members of two co-sponsorship groups welcomed the families and took them to their new homes In New Haven and Madison. Both families are seeking asylum in the United States and have received temporary parole to stay in the country while their applications are processed.


Pastor Todd Vetter welcoming new arrivals

The arrival of the asylum-seekers presents a departure for both IRIS and its co-sponsors. In the past they’ve received refugees who arrive with their immigration status settled and government support provided until they land on their feet. Unlike refugees, asylum seekers are not immediately authorized to work, leaving them financially dependent on their co-sponsors and IRIS for a year or longer. IRIS has helped asylum seekers already in New Haven by offering them case management services, but this was the first time they’d be co-sponsoring them.

In late December, IRIS received word that Catholic Charities needed help with an influx of African families at the border. In their shelters, the charities had many asylum-seekers who had no place to go.

“We responded immediately that we will take five families,” said Chris George, director of IRIS. He arrived at that number, he said, “based on a combination of factors; our capacity, what is it going to cost, how many community groups do I think can help us out, and what amount of families would have a significant impact? IRIS has more resources in terms of community support and private funding than most refugee resettlement agencies. I felt that this would be a good way to use these resources.”

IRIS remains willing to accept up to five families, but as of now,  Catholic Charities has needed to place only two. On February 2, Alexine Casanova, IRIS Director of Case Management, flew to Texas to meet the families, explain the co-sponsorship process, and arrange travel to New Haven. Because plans were made on short notice, it was too expensive to buy one-way air fares, so they all came by bus, with Casanova — a fluent French speaker —  joining them on the trip through the South to Atlanta and up the East Coast to New Haven.

Before Casanova left for Texas, IRIS had reached out to its community co-sponsors. George cautioned that although this would be similar to refugee resettlement—they’d still have to find and furnish an apartment, provide interpreters and cultural orientation, and introduce them to available services—the co-sponsors would also need to support them for a year or longer. 

“Employment authorization is a huge difference between asylum seekers and refugees,” George said. “They are not eligible for cash assistance, food stamps, and health care insurance. We can find places that provide free health care and we can connect them to food pantries, but who’s going to pay their rent and cover their utilities and all the other expenses? All that has to come from either IRIS or a community group.”

The Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement (JCARR) in New Haven and the First Congregational Church in Madison offered to take in the families. The Angolan family, father, mother, and three daughters would stay in New Haven with support from JCARR. The Congolese family, parents and a baby girl, are in Madison.

Both groups have volunteer networks that include retirees, as well as such professionals as physicians, social workers, financial planners, and teachers who can offer their services.

Jean Silk, who leads JCARR, said the decision to accept a family was made quickly, but required consent of higher authorities at its five member synagogues and the Jewish Federation. Despite concerns over the financial commitment, JCARR, which has co-sponsored four refugee families, agreed to take in the Angolan family, who fled religious persecution at home.

“There wasn’t a soul in the group who said no,” Silk said. “We have to. The Torah says 36 times that we shall welcome the stranger because we were once the strangers.”

The family has settled into an apartment in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Their oldest daughter, who is seven, has enrolled in kindergarten in a public school and her parents are eager to learn English.

The church in Madison took in the family who left a Congo wracked by rebel attacks. About 10 years ago, said Todd Vetter, senior minister, the church co-sponsored a refugee family from Iraq and last year went through training with IRIS to accept another family.

The Congolese family is living in a vacant in-law apartment while the church seeks a more permanent place in nearby Branford. Branford, Vetter said, is more suitable for its access to public transportation and the town’s programs in education and English as a Second Language.

“We were emotionally invested in helping someone and it didn’t matter whether they were a refugee family or an asylum-seeking family. The lack of access to public assistance and the ineligibility to work add a layer of complexity we’re still working through,” Vetter said. The church board approved the decision and a core group of volunteers prepared to receive the family. “There was universal approval and extraordinary enthusiasm for it. Every now and then, churches need to renew that sense of why we’re here and what it means to be a church.”