Refugees able to live the American dream
WORTHINGTON -- Growing up in the jungle on a mountainside in Burma, Eh Moo Paw never knew what it meant to have a permanent home. She didn't know what it was like to live in a quiet neighborhood without fear of soldiers setting fire to her family's bamboo hut in the middle of the night.
Living life on the move seemed normal to her. Then, when she was 19, she found a new normal with tens of thousands of fellow Karen-speaking Burmese people -- chased out of their country by soldiers and harbored by refugee camps on the Thailand side of the border.
It was while at the Mae La refugee camp that Paw learned to speak English. She completed high school and took specialized training in three different areas before the Thailand government decided it could no longer house the Karen refugees.
The United Nations stepped in to find countries that would welcome the refugees, and with a cousin living in St. Paul, Paw was assigned to relocate to the United States. She made the trek on her own, but has since had a younger sister settle in Worthington as a refugee. Another sister, a brother and her parents have either settled in -- or are in the process of relocating to -- Australia.
Paw arrived in the United States in 2008 and spent her first year in the Twin Cities before relocating to Worthington, where her husband, Kah Po, found work at JBS.
"Coming to Worthington, a lot of people work at JBS," she said. "It's hard to find a house to rent."
The couple had a difficult time finding rental property that was both affordable and in decent condition, and Paw said they had difficulty getting landlords to fix problems.
While the idea of home ownership appealed to them, Paw said they came to the United States with no credit history. Neither had owned a credit card. Without that history, finding a bank to finance a loan was virtually impossible.
Then, a friend took Paw to the USDA Rural Development office in Worthington to inquire about the agency's direct home loan program, which is targeted to very low- and low-income borrowers.
Paw and her husband completed the application, and she made multiple visits to the local office during the process. On Aug. 20, 2010, with a loan certificate guaranteed by USDA-RD, the couple purchased a home in the Watland Addition.
Over the course of the past few years, more than 20 Karen-speaking families have become homeowners in Worthington, and Paw does what she can to spread the news.
"I see a lot of Karen people interested in buying a house," she said. "We stay in our own house -- it's better than house for rent."
There are certain qualifications and income guidelines applicants must meet to access a home loan through USDA-RD. Those guidelines can be viewed at www.rurdev.usda.gov/RD_Loans.html.
Paw said she worries a lot about making the monthly mortgage payment, but after nearly two years of homeownership, everything is going well.
It's far different from the life she had in Burma, and far better. She and her husband have a roof over their heads, pictures on the walls and the pitter-patter of little feet running through their home. They have twin daughters, Hillery and Helen Po, age 4, and son Samuel Po, age 1, who was born with Down Syndrome.
The kids often sleep on the floor of the living room, as does Paw's husband, who hasn't grown accustomed to actually sleeping in a bed. In their bamboo huts in Burma, they typically slept on the ground.
Their living room is void of furniture, with the exception of a couple of baby swings, and visitors to the home are asked to sit on the floor. Yet Paw is thrilled with what they have, and can't stop smiling when she talks about living the American dream and forging a future for her family.
The Worthington office of USDA Rural Development has been helping low-income families find low-interest loans for housing for many years, working first under the umbrella of the Farmers Home Administration. Each year, the government agency receives money through the federal Farm Bill to guarantee home loans for individuals who don't qualify for bank loans.
Kathy Smit, USDA-RD area specialist in Worthington, said this year's funding was cut quite a bit because of the budget deficit, resulting in restrictions on how many loan certificates can be issued. Next week, however, counties who still have remaining funds will need to send them back for repooling and reissuing to areas with the greatest need for the dollars.
"Once they take it, we don't know what we're going to get back. We're hoping we get more money back," Smit said. The local office has nearly run out of funds for the "very low income" program, and has about $1.3 million remaining in its low income coffers.
In 2011, the Worthington office wrote 39 loans for low-income families to purchase their own homes. Of those, 23 households were considered to be minority populations. The largest share of applicants are Hispanic, followed by Karen-speaking people and Africans.
The program is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and Smit said once a family receives credit, it has three months to find a house.
"Usually, when they come to us, they're ready to buy," Smit said. "I think the program has always been successful. It's taking the low-income people who cannot go to the bank and get a loan. It's affordable housing because of that payment-assistance program.
"It lowers their interest rate so they can afford more of a house," she added.
In addition to getting a lower interest rate, borrowers also get an expanded mortgage repayment period. Instead of the typical 30-year mortgage for bank-financed loans, USDA-RD borrowers get 33 years to pay off their loan.
Adam Czech, public affairs specialist with USDA-RD Minnesota, said the two programs offered -- the more popular direct home loan program and the home loan guarantee program -- are not "free loan" or "handout" types of programs.
"These programs exist to help keep our rural communities strong," he said. "Home ownership means more people invested in their local community. They shop at local businesses, use local services, pay local property taxes and send their kids to local schools."
Each person who receives a home loan through USDA-RD is required to complete a HomeStretch home ownership course offered through the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. Classes are offered in Worthington and other communities in the region throughout the year.
In addition to teaching the new homebuyers about the importance of making their monthly mortgage payment and living on a budget, the class also talks about basic home repairs.
"With the Karen people, they never miss a payment," Smit said. "They take owning their home very seriously."
In fact, all of the minority populations that have received USDA-RD home loans have been really good about making their payments.
"It's a rewarding program to work with, and the people are so thankful," Smit said. "One Guatemalan said, 'I get to live the American dream because of you.'"
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.