Written by volunteer storyteller, Jeremy Brautman
After six years in her Habitat for Humanity home, Ro-Suhana, a sophomore at Reynold’s High School, does not take for granted the safety and stability that her home and her neighborhood provide. Her best friends Abby, Sami, An, and Sumaia live next door. Together, they spent their formative years growing up inside this diverse community of Habitat families.
“We all feel like family here and it’s really nice to see everyone’s culture and ethnicity and diverse backgrounds. To the right, there’s a Southeast Asian family, and to the left there’s a Middle Eastern family. It’s kind of a mix of everything and we can all rely on each other. We’re always staying connected. I’m really grateful my family got the opportunity to be here at Glisan Gardens.”
When she was just 5 years old, Ro-Suhana’s family moved from Malaysia to the United States. They were already refugees–having previously escaped the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar–and her parents hoped to give Ro-Suhana and her siblings a better life with more opportunities for education. What they initially found, however, was hardship.
Ro-Suhana recalls living in a small apartment. She slept on the floor of one small room with her baby sisters, along with cockroaches and rats. The outside world was no safer. The children would walk to school past people openly doing drugs and scowling at their cultural differences. The family lived in fear. They tried moving again only to find that the new environment was still plagued by vermin and hostile neighbors.
But Ro-Suhana’s family continued to be resilient and never give up. A nurse they knew helped the family look for better housing that they could afford, and with nothing to lose, they applied for a Habitat for Humanity home.
To say that Ro-Suhana’s life changed when she was in the 5th grade isn’t an understatement. “I remember finding out we were accepted to be a part of Habitat for Humanity, and I was so happy,” she says. “I immediately got up and prayed.”
She can still recall her parents’ excitement six year later–and how hard they worked volunteering at the construction site. “Each day we’d be astonished at how much had been accomplished. And it had all been made by the hands of the caring, the ones who won’t lose hope, the refugees, the awesome volunteer crews and of course, my parents.”
That first year inside their new home, the family held an Eid al-Fitr celebration after Ramadan and invited their Habitat neighbors. Ro-Suhana looks back fondly on the time 17 people gathered inside their new home.
“The house was packed with kids and adults, and although we didn’t really know anyone, we were connecting. It seems like we’ve known each other for years now. I can still remember it.”
Ro-Suhana met her best friend the night both families were moving into their new Habitat for Humanity homes. The friendships she formed in the early days of living there—all children of Habitat Homeowners—are friends she considers her close confidants. She values the sense of connection, safety, and inclusion in her community.
“This place holds a lot of values and significance. It brings my family together. It brings the whole community members together. This was my first house, not a rented one. It’s my first house. So this place means a lot to me.”
Ro-Suhana, already a driven student, said that feeling safer in her home and neighborhood had a cascading impact on her education. Now in 10th grade, she’s the Communications Manager for the National Honor Society. In addition,, she’s actively creating and building a more inclusive environment in her school . In an effort to promote open dialog about discrimination, she founded and serves as the president of the Islamic Student Union.
“I really wish to be successful and represent BIPOC and minority communities. I want my voice to be out there and heard. I want to help others have their voices heard. I want to go to college and make my parents proud,” says Ro-Suhana, who intends to study computer science.
When asked what she’d most like people to know about Habitat for Humanity, Ro-Suhana shared that she’s aware how many people don’t apply for the opportunity because of negative self-fulfilling prophecies or shame. But, she counters, if someone’s living conditions aren’t working and they really need some help, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“Once you get a house, you’ll be surrounded by people who had the same conditions as you before,” she says knowingly. “You’ll make more friends and a whole community here.”
That much is true for Ro-Suhana. She beams when she speaks about the community she’s been able to build at Glisan Gardens, developing close ties with her neighbors. Always keeping busy, Ro-Suhana now assists her mom as President of the HOA and volunteers at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore to give back to the community.