Hersi built a stable life for himself before he sought safety in the U.S. He worked for a bank for 10 years, attended college in the U.S. and returned to his home country of Somalia to work for the United Nations Development Program. After dedicating 11 years to his career with the UN, Hersi had to make the life-changing decision to leave Somalia. “People were killing each other. It was bad. It was so bad. So I thought… I just couldn’t stand that kind of killing. I didn’t want to kill anybody.” Hersi and his family locked the doors to their home and left everything behind.
They bounced around for a while, moving from Kenya to Pennsylvania, before settling down in the Seattle area. When they left Somalia, his oldest son was 14. By the time they got to Seattle, his eldest was an adult and no longer lived with them. And yet, there were still seven remaining family members between Hersi, his wife Asha, and their five children, to find appropriate housing for. They were able to find a 3 bedroom home in the Rainier Beach area but there was mold, plumbing issues, a lot of leakage and the rent was backbreaking. “I didn’t know exactly how long we would be able to continue paying at that rate. And I was trying to work, and work, and work, but it was all the time short.”
Hersi remembered hearing about Habitat for Humanity from a group of Mennonites during his time in Pennsylvania and knew his family had a need for it. By 1997, Hersi and his family moved into their Habitat home. “It was a good experience… It’s like, you know, you feel like you’re building your house. You’re building your house. You think that way and you think, ‘Wow I’m really something. I know how to build a house’.” The Habitat partnering process took some adjusting to, but Hersi and his wife knew their family would get a lot out of it. Over time, their dedication to the process grew. Their interests in finishing all their courses increased and they would defend the Habitat partnering process to friends who did not understand it. “They said they had never seen anything like it, you know, saying ‘if they want to give you a house, why don’t they give your house? Why are you building your house?’ And we said, ‘But we have to!… We can’t just have a house.’” These same friends donated construction hours to Hersi’s family and later became interested in partnering with Habitat themselves.
In the 10 years that Hersi has been in his Habitat home, he and his wife have raised children who can support themselves and have finished some level of education. Hersi has spent most of the last decade on the board of his community’s HOA. They’ve overcome language barriers, resolved disputes together and banded together when a fire affected multiple homes. “When you’re in a community… if you don’t own a home [in] that community, you feel that you don’t belong in it… You could be on the move the next day, to another place, and another place, and another place or another state. It’s like, you know, being a farmer… if you are a farmer, the land belongs to you, you stay there forever, and you feel one with that land. The land belongs to you. So around this place, that community, like a farmer, you care about it. You really care about it—when you own a home, it’s like that. You care about the community. You feel like being a part of the community; you think you belong here, because you have your home here, after all… It really plants you deeper into the community.”