Young Sarnians build Habitat home

The keys to a new Habitat for Humanity home built by local youth have been turned over to the Esengi family of Sarnia, who fled the Congolese genocide and lived a decade in a refugee camp. From left are, front row, Mkanya, Eto, mother Riziki, Ungwa and Reheema. Back row, Abi, Loi, father Esengi, and Arthur.

An unlikely partnership between a group of Sarnia teens and an immigrant family from the Congo culminated Thursday in an emotional celebration on the front lawn of the Esengi family’s new home on Maple Avenue.

“This is the first home we’ve owned in Canada and, when I die, it means I have something to leave my kids. It means I’m established in the community,” said a beaming Riziki Maua. She escaped with her husband and three children from the 1996 genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a spillover from the Rwandan genocide.

The family made it to a refugee camp in Tanzania with United Nations helps and lived in little more than a plastic tarp for a decade. During that time, Riziki earned what she could as a midwife. Her husband, Esengi Songolo, was seriously injured and couldn’t work.

Living in the refugee camp, she had five more children including a set of triplets.

The family of 10 eventually immigrated to Canada in 2006 and was guided to Sarnia by immigration officials. Riziki taught herself English and enrolled at Lambton College.

In the Congo, before the genocide, both parents were nurses. Today, she is a personal support worker holding down two jobs, the sole wage earner for the large family.

As difficult as life was in Africa, Sarnia has been good for the Esengis, who are identified by the husband’s first name, as is the custom in the Congo.

“In Sarnia, people are very friendly to me. There’s no injustice here,” said Riziki.

The local church community embraced them, and developed bonds so close they are like family.

Riziki and her family move Saturday into a brand new, five-bedroom bungalow made possible by Habitat for Humanity Sarnia/Lambton.

It’s the first Habitat home built primarily by local teens. Riziki, Esengi and their children aged 10 to 23 worked alongside the youth on the build and provided 500 hours of ‘sweat equity.’ They also pay an interest-free monthly mortgage.

The project was not only life-changing for the refugee family, it was life-changing for the teens, said Laura Hall, a youth leader from St. Patrick’s High School.

“This has been the most incredible experience for all of us,” she told about 75 gathered to watch as the keys were turned over to the family.

“This house has brought so much humanity together with so much purpose,” said Mayor Mike Bradley, who was moved to tears. “This is how you build a community; one step at a time.”

The 157 teens brought so much enthusiasm and energy to the job that a youth build will be repeated next year, said Habitat’s executive director Sarah Reaume.

“To be honest, we were really nervous if the kids would sign up and come, but they did.” The team even worked through a snowstorm on framing day.

Devin Hughes, a Sarnia teen who died this spring while skateboarding on Indian Road, was recognized as one of the first to sign up. His commitment will be marked by tree planting in the yard.

The house at 614 Maple Ave. is the 24th new Habitat home built in Sarnia-Lambton. Habitat’s 25th and 26th builds are underway on Ennisclaire Drive in Sarnia and Northridge Place in Petrolia.

– Cathy Dobson