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New house means new hope for children of civil war refugees

The Dubon familyThe Zavala-Dubon family — (from right) Jaime, Herman, Adelfa, Bryan and Glenda — will move into one of 12 new townhomes being built in Oakland during this year’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

By Soyia Ellison

Adelfa Zavala came to the U.S. from El Salvador, searching for a better life.Adelfa Zavala came to the U.S. from El Salvador, searching for a better life.

OAKLAND, California—Adelfa Zavala can’t wait to say goodbye to her rental house in San Leandro, California.

“I’m not going to miss anything about it,” she said, laughing.

Not the den that doubles as a bedroom for her oldest son, Jaime. Not the moldy bathroom. Not the neighbors who can’t seem to stay out of trouble with the law. And certainly not the $2,000-a-month rent.

Adelfa baby-sits; her partner, Herman Dubon, owns a small landscaping business. Together, they bring in just enough to cover the rent and basic necessities for themselves and their three children.

“We are working just to pay the rent and don’t have money for other things,” she said.

But better days are coming. The family is slated to move into one of 12 new townhomes that Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley is building in Oakland’s Brookfield Village neighborhood during October’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

“We are so excited,” Adelfa said. “For us, the American dream is finally coming true.”

One struggle after another

Adelfa and Herman are from El Salvador. They were still children when a civil war broke out in 1979, ripping their country apart. Herman’s father died in the war when Herman was only 5; Adelfa lost a cousin to the fighting. Eventually, their families — what was left of them — fled to a U.N. refugee camp in Honduras, where Adelfa remembers going to bed hungry after working all day to earn 25 cents.

The couple met in the camp, but it wasn’t until after they had separately moved to the States and reconnected that love bloomed.

Adelfa, 43, came to America first, in 1990. She lived for a while in a refugee house run by a Catholic church. She had no car and no license. With her limited English, she could find only low-paying jobs, which made it hard to repay the money she had borrowed to finance her move to the States.

Three years after she arrived, she gave birth prematurely to Jaime, who suffers from a debilitating muscle disorder and a compromised immune system that have necessitated countless trips to a children’s hospital. 

“It was quite difficult,” Adelfa said.

Herman, 38, arrived in the States in 1992, and his transition was similarly rocky.

The couple fell in love in 1995 and had two more children: Bryan, now 16, and Glenda, 13. By 2004, the family had saved enough money to buy their first house. But three years later, the bank raised their interest rate, and their mortgage payment ballooned from $2,000 to $4,500.

“We lost all our savings trying to keep up with the payments,” Herman said. “The banks at that time didn’t want to help.”

Adelfa fell into a depression. She imagined she would always be a renter, living in someone else’s run-down home, wishing for something better for her children.

Bryan Dubon (left) and his brother, Jaime Zavala, hang out in Bryan’s windowless bedroom.Bryan Dubon (left) and his brother, Jaime Zavala, hang out in Bryan’s windowless bedroom.

The promise of a better life

But this spring, their luck changed when they were approved to purchase a Habitat home. Now the family is excited about their future and the new, four-bedroom townhouse they will call home.

“I’m looking forward to my new room, and to my parents not having to pay so much for rent, and living closer to my cousin,” said Glenda, who is also eager to escape the noise of the train that rumbles past their house at all hours.

Glenda runs track, but now that she’s entering high school, she’s thinking of trying out for the volleyball, soccer and cross-country teams. She wants to study psychiatry when she grows up. “I like the mind,” she said.

Bryan, whose current room has no natural light, can sum up what he’s most looking forward to in the new home in one word: “Windows.”

Meanwhile, Jaime can’t wait to trade the den sofa for a real bed. “I just want to have my own room,” he said. Having his own space will make it easier to keep up with his classwork at Chabot College, where he’s taking core classes with a goal of one day earning a marketing degree.

Adelfa and Herman hope the financial security that the Habitat home will bring will allow them to help their kids pay for college. Everything they do is focused on providing opportunities for their children that they themselves didn’t have.

“I hope that my children educate themselves — go to the university and get a career,” Adelfa said. “I want them to have a different life than us.”