Salima’s siblings were outside building a snowman. With their laughter forming a joyful backdrop, she was inside the house taking a call from Trinity College, receiving the news that she had just been awarded a scholarship. This moment in time captures the dream Asukulu and Charlene, Salima’s parents, had for their children: a safe place where life was celebrated, where education was emphasized, and where love abounded.
That’s the dream every Habitat for Humanity family has – an affordable home that forms the foundation from which their children’s potential could be fulfilled.
Asukulu and Charlene helped to build and then purchased their Habitat home in 2005. Immigrants from Congo, they escaped the Second War of Congo. They did not want to leave, but, after experiencing the painful deaths of close family members to the war, they knew, for the safety of their children, they had to leave.
They spent a year in California in a crowded resettlement community and then learned about Idaho’s commitment to being a safe and welcoming place for immigrants and refugees. Though they knew nothing about Idaho, they soon learned that, despite being one of the few African families in the city at the time, Boise was a safe place to raise a family.
“Imagine all of us leaving our friends, the language we spoke, and ending up in Boise, which we didn’t even know how to find on a map,” Salima says. “But we showed up and just said we’re going to do what we need to do. So, we show up every day. My parents would show up at work. I would show up at school and in the community. We did that.”
Salima has said that their home – and her life and the lives of her siblings – were built on the backs of her parents. Despite being educators in Congo (Asukulu was a school principal and Charlene a teacher), to provide for their family her mother took a job working at an assisted living facility and her father worked as a custodian for Boise School District. They worked hard, long hours to ensure their children experienced stability and safety.
“Home is where my father would come to every night at 11pm, exhausted, because he had just spent eight hours providing for us. And my mother would prepare dinner for us before she left for work. As I got older, I would set dinner for my siblings. Our success was truly built on their backs. I would sometimes ask, why am I setting dinner or planning game or movie nights for my siblings? But it was just the circumstances we found ourselves in. And, thankfully, we had this safe home.”
While Asukulu and Charlene embraced being Americans (they became citizens after arriving in Boise), they also loved their African culture. Asukulu says that in African culture home is something that protected family – a place where children learned the values of becoming good people, and, in their home, where education was placed at a premium.
While her parents worked hard to create a home, being the oldest, much was asked of Salima. She cherished the play times with her siblings, the laughter and joy they felt in being together in the safety of their living room or in their back yard. She also set the standard as a role model, working hard in school to the point where she received a full scholarship to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; and later she earned a Master’s in Public Policy with a concentration in International and Global Affairs from Harvard Kennedy School. She is currently the Chief of Staff for Center for NYC Neighborhoods in New York City. Growing up in a Habitat home, Salima brings unique depth to her role in helping homeowners navigate the housing labyrinth in America’s largest city.
“She brings so much insight into the homeowner experience, how we program step-by-step to make an impact.” Says Christie Peale, Executive Director for NYC Neighborhoods. “She has a unique gift for seeing the wholistic picture while having intimate knowledge of the mechanics. She walks the walk. It’s not just words, it’s action. She is very generous with her advice. She wants others to benefit from her experience.”
That experience was wrought from the unique journey Salima’s family had taken. It wasn’t easy. Unlike those families designated as refugees, Asukulu and Charlene entered the U.S. as immigrants, which meant they were not eligible for the wrap-around services available to refugees. While often they felt like they had to do it on their own, they weren’t alone. Asukulu had befriended a man from Ethiopia, Tesfaye, whose family had been in their Habitat home for a couple of years. He shared details of the program, and then Asukulu and Charlene pursued the Habitat opportunity – and were accepted into the program.
“As new Americans there was no way we would qualify for a house,” Salima says. “There’s no way that would have been possible. But with Habitat it was possible. My parents have always paid their mortgage and they’ve been able to build credit. And I think for me now, working in housing and understanding the challenges people face, I can be effective in affecting change. Hearing from the people we serve that are directly affected is important because I think it is great to give people a voice and to understand that we sit in a position of being able to do something about it.”
This positive attitude Salima demonstrates every day in her work was formed early in her life.
It is often said that one of the materials used to build a Habitat for Humanity home can’t be found on a project spreadsheet or on the back of a flatbed truck. That material is love – and it is love that formed the foundation of the home that Asukulu and Charlene built for their five children.
“You get opportunity to improve yourself,” Charlene says. “And then blessings come behind that and transforms.”
This wisdom permeated their household. During the Habitat journey this family were immersed into the Habitat experience first-hand as members of their church, regular Habitat volunteers, and groups of people they had never met came together to build their home.
“I have people from our church and others who will say ‘I painted your room, or they helped install our kitchen’. This has given me the opportunity to see the impact Habitat has had on our lives, and the lives of others. And now I want other families to have the same opportunities that I have experienced.”
Early in the Habitat journey, Asukulu’s friend Tesfaye told him, “This is land from God for you. This is your village. This is your home. Keep faith.”
That encouragement has stayed with Asukulu and Charlene for nearly two decades. They never took for granted the blessings that came with the Habitat opportunity, and they set good examples for the work that would be required to become successful. That began with education. With Salima’s journey as a model, each of their children have seen success. Lena, their second oldest, graduated from Occidental College in California and works at a charter school; Therese graduated from University of Maryland and works as a communications associate for a nonprofit; Neema is currently attending the University of Southern California; and youngest child, Ruth, is a high school senior in Boise and wants to study business in college.
For Salima, this piece of the American Dream goes back to that snow day when she received the call from Trinity College. “Looking back on that day, I think about those three kids. They’re outside playing as they should as children. I’m in the house getting this opportunity that would change where I would go in life. And my parents, I know they can breathe a sigh of relief because they know that their kid is going to university and it’s not going to cost anything because of the scholarship.
“And so, they provided us with a home and a sense of stability. And what’s important to me is that, while my apartment in Brooklyn is my home now, my (true) home in Boise is still there – and when I speak of home it is where my parents continue to live.”
Her father sums up all of this by saying that “If in yourself you are a good person you will do good things. You just decide and abide, and you are free. We wanted that for our children. If you have potential, you can be someone who does something of consequence.”
In that way Salima has realized the dream of her father. She is someone who is good and who is doing something of consequence.