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Building a better life in a new home -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Building a better life in a new home

The Nkezabara family donned traditional Rwandan garb for a 2011 family photo. Pictured from left to right are: Steven, Sandrine, Epiphanie, Antoine,
Elvis and Olivier. Photo courtesy of Antoine Nkezabara

Hard work, education and a hand up from Habitat
By Soyia Ellison

 


Antoine Nkezabara and his wife, Epiphanie, received asylum in the United States in 1996, after the Rwandan government toppled and he lost his diplomatic position. Photo courtesy of Antoine Nkezabara

   
 


Antoine Nkezabara’s daughter, Sandrine, said she and her brothers finally began to feel like America was home after moving into their Habitat house. Photo courtesy of Antoine Nkezabara

   


In 1994, Antoine Nkezabara served as a diplomat in the Rwandan embassy in Kenya. He and his family had a spacious home in an upscale neighborhood in Nairobi.

Three years later, he was working on an IBM assembly line in Raleigh, North Carolina, for minimum wage. He and his family lived in half of a cramped duplex that was infested with mice.

But he considered himself lucky.

“When there’s a war, when you lose everything you have, you really don’t think of having a good life,” he said. “You just think of having your life. It was a blessing to be in a place where you were safe.”

Antoine had applied for asylum in America after rebels toppled the Rwandan government in 1994. He and his wife, Epiphanie, and their three children — Olivier, Steven and Sandrine — came to the United States in 1996.

“We landed in Buffalo on Nov. 20, and the following day it started to snow,” he said. “It was the first time that we saw snow. It was too cold. And from that day until March or April, there was snow.”

There was snow, but there was no work. Antoine soon relocated his family to Raleigh, where the weather was warmer. He worked days at IBM, while his wife worked nights as an assistant at a nursing home.

They no longer enjoyed the power, the stature and the financial security they had in Africa.

“But we were paying our bills,” Antoine said. “I felt independent because I was no longer taking welfare. I was paying for my rent, my food.”

Soon after the move to Raleigh, Epiphanie gave birth to a boy they named Elvis. The family of six shared their side of the duplex with Epiphanie’s sister, their only relative in the U.S.

Then a member of their church told them about Habitat for Humanity of Wake County.

Education is the key

Antoine and Epiphanie put in hundreds of hours alongside Habitat volunteers building their new, four-bedroom home. In December 1999, they moved in.

“We were just so happy,” said their daughter, Sandrine, who was 8 at the time. “I think it was the first time that America really felt like our home.”

As diplomats, her parents had always held dinner parties. Now, in their new home, they began to do that again.

Epiphanie continued to work part time at the nursing home but also went back to school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and certification as a licensed practical nurse. Today, she works as a supervisor in the same nursing home where she got her start in Raleigh.

When Epiphanie finished school, Antoine entered college. He had a degree in foreign languages from a Rwandan university, but he couldn’t get ahold of his transcript, so he had to repeat his undergraduate studies. He did that in two years, and then, in just one year, he earned his master’s degree in social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He now works as a social worker in the state foster care system.

“Habitat allowed us to go back to school,” he said. “If you are making minimum wage and you have kids, you have to work two jobs. But with Habitat we were able to go back to school, and then to improve our lives.”

Next: It’s a family’s home
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