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In Pasco, Sudan refugees need help

NEW PORT RICHEY — Ibrahim Yagoub slipped away when the soldiers weren't looking, leaving behind his home in Sudan for one in America.

He found a job with a Pasco County sprinkler company. He found a house for his family and got something he had never heard of — mortgages?— to pay for it.

Then the economy began to falter. This time, home slipped away from him.

• • •

In Sudan, Yagoub was a father who trucked vegetables to market. But one day almost a decade ago, he recalled, the northern government ordered him and the men in his village to make other plans: They were to fight in the civil war against their neighbors to the south.

The war had already left his two cousins dead, and it seemed a senseless endeavor to Yagoub. "It's same people," he said, "fighting each other."

Now 53, Yagoub sneaked off during a military training exercise, first to the city of Khartoum, then to Egypt and, in 2001, to the United States through the help of World Relief, a refugee aid group that brought more than 50 Sudanese men to Pasco County. Most of those men were "Lost Boys," who as children had fled their villages during Sudan's 1987 civil war.

Yagoub's circumstances in Sudan had been different from those of the Lost Boys, but he and the younger men formed a close community in Pasco, sharing tiny apartments, working in the construction and landscaping industries and learning together how to navigate their surreal new world.

Much was riding on Yagoub establishing a foothold. Back in Sudan waited his wife, Khadiga, now 36, and their five children, Awatif, Shadia, Faiza, Mustafa and Tassabeh, now 18, 16, 11, 10 and 7, respectively. They would come when he prepared a place for them.

So he worked overtime. He saved money and sent money home. The apartments he had lived in were too small and, he thought, too crime-ridden for five school-age children. His instincts were reinforced by what he heard from everyone around him: Buying is better than renting.

Nearly five years later, his family's paperwork to come to America was close to approval. He needed a home. Soon.

• • •

Then, in early 2006, over a weekend, he found the house.

He met a mortgage broker, Mike Radwan, who spoke Arabic, Yagoub's native language. Radwan put him in touch with a Realtor who showed him a modest home going for $135,000 in Hillandale Estates, a subdivision near New Port Richey.

Radwan, who did not return a phone message left at his homesteaded house, helped Yagoub secure two no-money-down mortgages from California-based Fremont Investment & Loan.

One was for $114,746 and carried an adjustable interest rate; the other was for $20,249. Including insurance and taxes, that added up to more than $1,300 in initial monthly payments, loan documents show. Counting $720 in overtime, Yagoub was making about $2,825 a month with the sprinkler company.

Yagoub, who speaks and reads only basic English, could have asked his contacts at various social service agencies or even one of his fellow refugees for help.

"I tell him, you are not making that much money," Daniel Agau, another Sudanese refugee in Pasco, recalled telling Yagoub after he bought the house.

But Yagoub wanted his family to have their own home. He admits he didn't understand the documents he signed.

"I no read nothing," he said. "Just sign."

Raul DaSilva, a manager with Lutheran Services, which along with Catholic Charities has helped Yagoub over the years, said many refugees are eager for a place of their own after spending their lives moving from one place to another. Take that eagerness and combine it with language barriers and a tendency to trust what people tell them.

Said DaSilva: "He probably didn't have a clue."

• • •

Less than two years after they moved in, the Yagoubs' story took a now-familiar turn.

As the real estate market took a hit, so did the construction and landscaping trades. Yagoub, who in 2007 became a U.S. citizen, found himself working fewer hours at the sprinkler company where he had spent seven years.

He started missing mortgage payments, and in January 2008, he was served a notice of fore­closure on the first mortgage by Fremont Investment & Loan.

That month, he got laid off.

By September, the foreclosure was completed, and his unemploy­ment benefits were close to drying up.

The family had to leave their home. But where? And, with little money, how?

Yagoub turned to his fellow Sudanese refugees. One of them was Agau, who was a teenager when he fled Sudan's Islamic government army, sleeping in tall trees to escape lions and surviving a gunshot to his neck before ending up in a refugee camp.

Now, his friend's foreclosure. Agau called a meeting with the other Lost Boys of Pasco.

"We sit down," said Agau, "and I say, 'Okay, boys, this is what we're going to do.' "

• • •

The Lost Boys pooled their money to pay for a deposit and first month's rent of $650 at Ebeneezer Vincent Apartments, a New Port Richey complex where Agau and about 20 of the other refugees live.

And so it was that the Yagoub children, who learned English over the past 2 1/2 years at school and from television, traded a front yard for a parking lot, a driveway mailbox for a sign by the stairwell that says "No alcoholic beverages or loud music."

One recent afternoon, Awatif, a junior at Gulf High School, sat on the couch and read The Crucible for her English class. Shadia, a junior varsity basketball player at Gulf, was curled up in a chair. Mustafa and Faiza worked on their science homework. The youngest, Tassabeh, sprinted out the door to play with another girl at the complex.

Outside, a woman was yelling from the balcony. Inside, their mother, Khadiga, sat silent on the couch.

Not long after they had to leave their home, she fell ill. She can't eat. Her face swells. She's sore and wobbly on her feet. One day, Ibrahim found her collapsed on the floor.

She went to the emergency room. She went to doctors' offices. But she has little to show for it other than a few bottles of painkillers, including generic Vicodin, that leave her listless.

"We wish she was like before," said Awatif. Her mother only smiled.

• • •

Yagoub has still not found a job. He applied for a school bus driver's position, but no one was hiring. He has a hard time going on job searches, anyway, because of his wife's declining health.

The week before Christmas, Khadiga fell so ill that her husband put her in their Oldsmobile Toronado, which an East Lake church donated to them, and drove to Tampa General Hospital. Hospital officials say they are running tests, and they aren't sure what's wrong with her. She is in a room, with tubes in her arms; the children cried when they saw her.

"My wife, very sick," Yagoub said gravely.

Every day he drives back and forth, from the hospital to the apartment complex, leaving the oldest in charge. Every night, he returns alone, nothing in his passenger seat but an empty bag of Doritos and a $30 parking ticket.

He continues to cobble money together. January rent is due Thursday, and no one can say where it will come from. The family does have food stamps, Khadiga has Medicaid and this month, to Yagoub's great surprise, they got $300 in cash assistance from the state, which they used to help pay past due rent and a late power bill.

"Cash assistance," he said, sounding out the words carefully as if to emphasize the wonder of government aid. "We no have 'cash assistance' in Sudan."

His children share the same outlook, that things could be worse. One day, Faiza, the 11-year-old, was asked about a "Santa's Helpers" listing in her homework assignment book.

"I've already done that," she said. She said she had saved her change, and her father took her to a grocery. She bought a doll for about $8 and took it to school.

Who was it for? She shrugged.

"I don't know," she said. "Poor people."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

How to help the Yagoub family

Nancy Moyers, a Pasco County resident who has worked with the Sudanese refugees through her church, is hoping to collect donations for the Yagoubs. She can be reached at (727) 849-0221 or (727) 207-0031.

In Pasco, Sudan refugees need help 12/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 2:14pm]
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