A new start in a Habitat house
Planting watermelon out back with mom. Tossing the football in the front with dad. Riding scooters in the driveway with little brother Andy and even littler sister Laura.
Eight-year-old Kevin Ksor lists these seemingly ordinary moments as the big and fun changes to come with the new Habitat house. But the biggest and the best change is that his parents smile now. “I can tell they are happy because they are smiling,” Kevin says. “And that makes me happy.”
Kevin is a super-smart kid, but he is still way too young to understand how far his parents have traveled to get to their new home, both literally and figuratively, separately and together.
Y’Thao Nai and Chan Ksor were teenagers when each fled their small village in central Vietnam and the religious persecution they faced for their Christian beliefs. Both spent the next several years in different refugee camps in Cambodia.
As serendipity would have it, Y’Thao and Chan met on a flight to the United States in 2002 and were resettled into apartments next door to each other. “Flushing a toilet and lighting a stove were new, and scary, experiences for us,” Chan now laughs. “We had to learn English and try to make money at the same time. It was tough.”
The place they rented before becoming Habitat homeowners was the worst. “That old house was creepy,” says Kevin, who remembers a leaky roof and putting a bowl on the living room floor when it rained to catch the water. “When it was full, I had to get a new bowl,” Kevin says.
He counts with his fingers the number of people who lived in that small house: 17. “My family members were always mad at each other because we didn’t have enough space,” Kevin says.
And then there was a mouse. “At night, I heard squeaks. When I tried to sleep, I kept thinking about the mouse.”
The mouse was actually a rat, Chan says. “It was huge. I kept saying, ‘Why is there a rat in the house where my children are living?’” she says. “So many things worried me. It was not safe for my kids. I kept pushing my husband. We tried to save money. We wanted to move out.”
It now pains Chan to hear Kevin talk about how unhappy and frustrated she was back then. “It is not good for my kids to feel all this anger,” she says. “They are not supposed to hear all of this adult stuff.”
While in the refugee camp, Chan used to dream of having a home of her own where she felt safe. “In the camp, I was afraid all the time,” she says. “I just prayed that God would give me one place of my own.”
While pregnant with Laura, now 4, Chan struck up a conversation with another expecting mom in the obstetrician’s office. The woman’s husband managed a company that sells flags.
One thing led to another, and Y’Thao now works installing flagpoles for the man, who also told him about Habitat. The family moved into their tan and gray house a year ago.
“I love cleaning. I love cooking. I decorate everything I can,” Chan says. She has affixed different colored sticky notes with inspirational messages, mostly from the Bible, to the walls, doors and mirrors. The family is very involved with their church.
The kids love their new school where Kevin, an enthusiastic student, was elected president of his second-grade class. He likes to study in the room he shares with his brother, Andy. “My favorite subject is history and science and math and reading,” Kevin says.
When he isn’t traveling for work, Y’Thao spends a lot of time in the yard with the kids. Having grown up playing soccer, he has been trying to master the rules of American football, which Kevin loves. “Seriously, I just don’t get it,” Y’Thao laughs.
Y’Thao and Chan’s ability to grow eggplant, tomatoes, watermelon, chili peppers, Chinese cabbage and lemongrass in their backyard garden is the envy of the neighborhood. They are experimenting with rice and are teaching their kids to garden. Kevin is growing watermelon and Andy cucumbers. Laura helps with the watering.
“I learned to grow vegetables from my parents,” Chan says. “It is just so great to teach my kids. It reminds me where I came from.”
But the garden also reminds Chan of how far she has come. “I am just so happy to make a new life,” she says, “to have a new start.”