Athanase Kabayiza likes to offer financial advice to his friends and family – how to build credit, how to budget, how to save and how to buy a home.
“I tell them, ‘When you pay a mortgage, your money comes back to you,” said Athanase, who last year moved into the second home he has purchased in Tucson. (He purchased his first with the help of Primavera Foundation.) “And your monthly payment is often less than what you’d pay in rent.”
Athanase and his wife, Agnes – both from Rwanda – are far from your typical homeowners.
Their journey involves being refugees (twice), learning a new language in a new land and applying new skills with generous amounts of grit and determination.
When they arrived in Tucson in 2012, they had almost nothing. Eventually, they turned to Primavera, which helped them find an apartment and enrolled them in its homebuying and financial empowerment classes. Two years later, they bought their own home.
“I joke that Mr. Kabayiza can always come here to Primavera to teach about saving in our classes,” said Lupita Rodriguez, Primavera’s external relations director who worked with the couple early on.
Their journey began in the mid-1990s in Rwanda, which was in the midst of a genocide. Athanase and Agnes independently fled the nation. Athanase said it was a 5,000-kilometer journey through the Congo to the Central African Republic, where he arrived in 1997. It was there that the two met, married and had a son, Muhoza, now 18.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the Central African Republic was gripped with civil war. The couple again made the difficult decision to leave their home, seeking resettlement in the U.S.
“We arrived with just the clothes on our back,” he said.
A resettlement agency gave them temporary housing for six months. They then heard about Primavera from a fellow refugee and the organization helped them find a new, temporary apartment and taught them about monthly budgeting and saving.
Primavera also gave them a goal: Save $5,000.
A year-and-a-half later, Athanase and Agnes had crushed their goal. They qualified for $15,000 in down-payment assistance from Let’s Invest for Tomorrow (LIFT), a collaboration between Wells Fargo and NeighborWorks America, of which Primavera is a member. They also received $15,000 – $3 for every dollar they saved – through FHL Bank’s Workforce Initiative Subsidy for Homeownership (WISH), a matching grant program.
The down-payment allowed them to secure a mortgage on Athanase’s income from his healthcare job (he is now a licensed nursing assistant), while Agnes cared for their new daughter, Magnifique, now 10. In October 2014, they moved into their three-bedroom home.
“People said, ‘You can’t buy a house here in the United States in two years,’” Athanase said. “They said, ‘You don’t know the language, you just got a job.’ I said, ‘I’m going to try.’”
Athanase and Agnes’ story represents the success that can happen when participants are empowered with sound financial skills, said Celia Mendivil, director of Primavera’s Homeownership Program.
“We are always ready to help people achieve their dreams of owning a home,” she added.
At a recent NeighborWorks America convening in Tucson, Athanase shared his story. LIFT has helped more than 25,000 people in 81 communities buy homes over the past 12 years through down-payment assistance.
“Strategies that create new homeowners remain an integral and time-tested way of strengthening communities,” Noelle Melton, NeighborWorks’ vice president of national homeownership and lending, said in a news release on their website after the event.
The Kabayiza household has grown over the years. Athanase said his mother-in-law and sister-in-law also moved in, and a few years ago the family realized their house was too small.
No problem, he thought. They saved more, sold their first home and used the money last year to make a large down-payment on a new, five-bedroom home.
“I am now able to teach my friends how to build up their credit score, how to save and to buy a home,” Athanase said. “So far, three have done so.”