Jan. 7, 2015
By Renee Peggs
“Whoever fears the LORD has a secure dwelling, and for their children it will be a refuge.” Proverbs 14:26
From a large farmhouse in Africa to a small apartment in Indiana, and coming soon… for Gladys Muchemi, “home for the holidays” isn’t just a nice Christmas sentiment. Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, her dream of home ownership is about to come true.
Five years ago, Gladys and her children called Kenya home. They were surrounded by family: Gladys’ parents and siblings and their spouses and children. Residing in the countryside, they made their living from agricultural efforts and related business ventures.
When Gladys, Ben (who was 11) and Charlyne (seven at the time) stepped off a plane in Indiana on Nov. 30, 2009, after a 7,000-mile trip, their journey had just begun. They had left behind family and familiarity in Kenya to start a new life in the United States.
Today, they stand outside a large two-story house, still under construction, just off of State Road 23 near Notre Dame. That house will become the Muchemi family home next spring.
Since 2007, Gladys had been dreaming, not of a white Christmas, but of a better life for herself and her children. Growing up in Kenya as the fifth of 12 children, she valued the influence and proximity of family, yet she also knew that America would offer opportunities they could never have if they remained in Africa.
“All my life I was in Kenya and I wanted to have different chances for my children,” says Gladys of her motivation for relocating across the globe. “It wasn’t an easy decision, imagining being far away from my family who had lived close all my life.
“I chose South Bend because my niece and her family have been here since 2000. It was a good choice to come where I knew someone from my family. I had never been to the States, but I wasn’t scared because my niece said this was a good place and I talked to her many times before we moved. It took us two days traveling to get here, and our jet-lag lasted about a week.”
Despite their travel-weariness, the Muchemis all remember the same first shock from the States: snow!
“It was really cold and there was so much of it!” says Ben, shivering at the memory even as he braces against the reality of an icy wind in present-day South Bend. “We had no idea, we had only seen snow in the movies.”
Gladys explains that there are 42 different languages spoken in Kenya, of which she could speak seven. Before they moved to the States, Ben (16) could speak English, Swahili and French, and he was studying Kikuyu. Charlyne (12) spoke English and French. Coincidentally, she has been learning about the Tower of Babel and the story of Pentecost in her religion class at school. Both kids say that they don’t remember any of their native languages because they haven’t used them in South Bend.
Charlyne is a sixth-grader at Saint Anthony de Padua School in South Bend, and Ben is a junior at South Bend Adams High School.
“The schools here are much different,” says Ben. “The hardest thing to get used to [after we moved from Kenya] was school. The transition was really difficult because the teaching styles and the emphasis are so completely different.”
What he shares points out the way students in America can take their education for granted.
“In Kenya, teaching was a lot more emphasized. Everyone was expected to learn everything so no one fooled around or zoned out, everyone was focused; teachers made sure everyone understood everything before moving on. Here, things move more quickly and teachers don’t pay as close attention to whether students are getting it, and kids don’t seem to care as much.”
Their mother serves as an educational role model for them. Gladys herself is also in school, working toward her degree in human services from Ivy Tech. She had courses this fall in psychology and math.
“It was not easy,” she says with a laugh. “I have been trying my best. When I came here, I didn’t even know what I could do but some friends encouraged me to go to school so I can get an even better job.”
Since 2011, Gladys has worked for AWS assisting adults with disabilities. As part of the Habitat for Humanity process, she has also volunteered hundreds of hours at the ReStore and on other site-builds, in addition to taking classes on financial literacy, construction and home maintenance.
Charlyne’s favorite subject is language arts–she’s a big fan of learning the parts of speech. She wants to be a nurse when she grows up.
Both Ben and Charlyne remember that after school in Kenya, homework came first, before playing outside or having friends over. Charlyne plays volleyball and basketball for Saint Anthony’s. Soccer has always been a favorite pastime for both kids.
“I love soccer!” Ben says with great enthusiasm. He’s been playing as long as he can remember. “I prefer to be on defense but I can play any position. When I grow up I want to be a pharmacist or a professional soccer player, definitely soccer if I can make it.”
He was glued to the World Cup games over the summer. His favorite moment? “Spain was expected to win it all but got shut out by Chile and Australia. That was awesome!” He does a little happy dance.
Gladys tells of her children’s excitement upon learning that they would have their own house through Habitat for Humanity.
“They thought maybe within a few weeks they would be in their own home,” she laughs. “They didn’t know it’s a long process. Every day when I pick my daughter up from school she wants to drive by the house or to know if I have taken a new picture, because it might have changed since the last day. They are very excited.”
She found out about Habitat through a family friend who is a homeowner through the program.
“I thought when I came here that maybe only American citizens or people born here could own a house,” Gladys says. “It is no fun living in an apartment. I felt that maybe by joining Habitat there would be a good chance I could be accepted into the program and be able to give my children a real home instead of renting a small place. Thanks to God I was accepted into the program. I knew from that minute I would be able to give my children things I could not give them if we stayed in the apartment: their own place to play and to have friends over. I think now my family members back home in Kenya may come and visit me, once our home is finished, because we will have a place for them to stay.”
She talks to her family regularly – “my sisters and nephews and my dad call me; to me this means so much,” Gladys says. In 2012 she and the kids were able to go back home to Kenya for a month during the summer, “but it is warm there all the time, we have summer always!”
Christmas traditions in Kenya differ in other ways than just the weather.
“We’ll choose one family member’s home and gather there to thank God for the year,” Gladys says. “The children receive gifts, but there is no Santa in Kenya! We go to church from 8 o’clock until midnight on the 24th, very different from here. We do not have artificial Christmas trees. Our trees are all real. There is no winter so the tree is dug up and you have to take care of it for a month, almost to the end of January, and then you know that Christmas is over!”
Charlyne shares that they usually go to their cousin’s house for Christmas dinner, and then that family comes to the Muchemi apartment the following day, so they still have lots of family time even though they are far away from most of the family. She was hoping to find the new Beats by Dr. Dre under their tree this year, while Ben is wishing for a PS4… with FIFA’15, of course.
“I don’t even have words to express my joy at imagining having Christmas next year in this home,” says Gladys, almost overwhelmed at the thought. “I will make pilau and samosas…”
Ben says the food is what he misses most about Kenya, “especially chapatti!” His mom and sister laugh.
“Maybe during the house blessing we will have some of those foods here and I can explain them,” Gladys offers generously, in anticipation of the official dedication ceremony planned for spring 2015.
“The first thing I will do is join hands with my friends and the Notre Dame students and Habitat people, and we will thank God for everything he has done for us,” Gladys says, brimming with gratitude. “I want to thank Habitat and Notre Dame for being so supportive and making our dream come true. I look forward to that day when I can see all of them out here for the house blessing. I know that God can open so many doors and I feel that this is one of them. For all those who trust in God and have faith and patience, there always are good things waiting somewhere.”
Sometimes, God opens a front door. Through faith, a family finds refuge.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Muchemi family from all of us at Notre Dame Athletics.