Enforcers of the repressive regime abducted Alain Rwage from his home in Burundi one night in 2011. Alain worked as a hotel manager and was in college studying communications. He also was helping organize young people to push for democracy in the African nation riven by violent political and tribal conflict. He had endured persecution, prison and torture for his efforts.
The abductors beat Alain severely and left him for dead in a cemetery outside of the capital of Bujumbura. After recovering in the hospital, Alain went into hiding. He knew that he would lose his life if he did not leave the country as soon as possible.
Alain was able to secure an invitation to an international conference in Washington D.C. Once in the United States, he was assisted by a refugee center in Portland, Maine. At the center, he connected with Freedom House in Detroit, which offered a safe haven and promised to work on his asylum case. He arrived in the city in January 2013.
“I decided to come to Detroit because I wanted to succeed and have a good life, and I thought this was the best opportunity for me,” Alain says.
Freedom House partners with Southwest Solutions’ Adult Learning Lab to provide ESL (English as a Second Language) programming. Alain’s English was rudimentary when he first came to the Lab. He completed the basic and advanced ESL courses in nine months. His English skills are now college-level. At the Lab, staff person Joe Lauchlan helped Alain obtain his high school degree accreditation from Burundi.
Alain heard about Southwest Solutions’ “jobs pipeline” program while at the Lab. He decided to enroll in the program in anticipation of receiving his asylum and then being able to work. In the program, he learned about the process of finding employment, resume writing, interviewing, and job expectations from Therese Yglesias, Southwest Solutions’ workforce development coach.
Alain was granted asylum in March 2014. He immediately contacted Therese, who helped connect him with a job reading meters for DTE Energy. Subsequently, Southwest Solutions jobs pipeline referred Alain to an opportunity with Fed Ex. This job was seasonal at first, but Alain’s work ethic turned it into a full time position.
Alain works as a package handler. He aspires to be an engineer. Last July, he enrolled at Henry Ford College and is taking three classes a semester.
With steady employment, Alain set his sights on buying a house. He faced two major challenges. First, he knew very little about the home buying process. Second, he had no credit history and thus would be unable to get a mortgage.
To build his credit, Alain started working with Grace Meyer, a Southwest Solutions’ financial coach. Grace started Alain on a savings plan and helped him enroll in the LISC Twin Accounts program. Through the program, Alain received a special $300 “loan” to be paid back through monthly back installments for a year. At the end of the year, Alain received the paid-off $300 loan plus matching funds to be used to open a secure credit card. Through the loan payments and credit card, Alain built his credit score from zero to about 700.
Grace also connected Alain to a program offered by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to help him obtain and cover the costs for his permanent resident or “green” card. Alain hopes to become a citizen in 2020.
To learn about homeownership, this spring Alain took the free homebuyer education workshop that Southwest Solutions offers. He earned a certificate that allowed him to qualify for special incentive programs, including Detroit HomeLIFT, which provides $15,000 in downpayment assistance to eligible homebuyers.
In July, Alain saw the home he wanted to buy in Dearborn. “I knew as soon as walked through the door that this was going be my home,” Alain says.
He qualified for a mortgage with Huntington Bank. Southwest Solutions’ Pre-Purchase counselor Teresa Torres helped facilitate Alain’s HomeLIFT application. Alain bought the house for $65,000. He got the $15,000 grant from HomeLIFT. His monthly mortgage payment, including taxes and insurance, is less than $600.
Alain moved into his new home the first weekend of November.
“If you work with Southwest Solutions and believe in what they offer, and, at the same time, if you believe in yourself and work hard, then you will achieve your goals,” Alain says. “Southwest Solutions gives you a key and teaches you how to use it. Then it’s up to you to use that key to open doors.”
Alain certainly works hard. He gets up at 2am on weekdays for his shift with Fed Ex. When he returns home at 10am, he does homework until his college classes start at 2pm. He gets to bed at 10pm, allowing him about 4 hours of sleep each weeknight.
“It’s a difficult schedule but I am grateful to have these opportunities beyond anything I imagined when I dreamt of coming to America to start a new life,” Alain says.
– Steve Palackdharry is director of communications at Southwest Solutions.