Struggling Immigrants Find a Forever Home

September 15, 2017 Updated: October 4, 2017

Marlene Djidjoho’s parents shook her awake at midnight.

Her family climbed into a taxi, but 12-year-old Marlene did not know where they were headed.

“I didn’t know we were coming to the United States,” Marlene said. “My parents kept it a secret until we were at the airport. They told us we’d be moving, but they didn’t tell us when, why, or where. We had no idea it would be halfway across the planet.”

The Djidjohos are from Benin, Africa. Her parents won a visa in a “mini lottery.” After they won the visa, the family underwent background checks and got immunization papers. The parents, Nicole and Pierre, kept the process a secret from their children.

“They wanted to come to the United States to give us a better opportunity,” Marlene said. “We aren’t refugees, but Benin isn’t a developed country like the United States.”

Marlene Djidjoho hugging her dad, Pierre. (Photo courtesy of Marlene Djidjoho)
Marlene Djidjoho hugging her dad, Pierre. (Photo courtesy of Marlene Djidjoho)

The Djidjohos moved to Omaha, Nebraska because a family friend was settled there. They planned to stay with the family friend for only a couple months—until they learned English and could get jobs. Nicole Djidjoho was a nurse in Benin, and Pierre Djidjoho worked at the boatyards. The couple did not realize they could not do the same jobs in Omaha.

Marlene and her siblings went to school even though they did not understand English.

“My whole vocabulary came through books,” Marlene said. “I remember sitting in the seventh grade classroom reading Disney children’s books. I had a stack of them, and I would go through them over and over again.”

After a few months, the family moved into an apartment in Bellevue, Nebraska. The building was falling apart and the rooms would flood when it rained, Marlene said.

St. Mary’s Church in Bellevue helped the Djidjohos find Habitat for Humanity of Omaha. The family was ecstatic when they moved into their new home.

“It was either luck or God’s doing,” Marlene said. “We were all pretty excited to get out of the apartment.”

Habitat for Humanity began in Omaha in 1984. Since then, the organization has partnered with more than 1,350 families like the Djidjohos. In addition, more than 12,000 volunteers work for the organization annually.

“In the North Omaha metro area, six out of 10 children live in poverty, and the problem is growing even faster during these times of economic uncertainties,” according to Habitat for Humanity Omaha’s website.

To be accepted as a family partner, families must put in 250 to 350 sweat equity hours, where they work on building their home and other Habitat homes. Families also must receive 30 percent to 60 percent of the Area Median Income, attend eight required workshops and be in housing need. Habitat for Humanity works with the family partners to find a mortgage price that fits within their budget.

“A lot of times when people think of low-income families, it’s some distant thing. When someone comes out to volunteer and they meet the family partner, they realize that we’re not that different,” said Caleb Heavner, the volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Omaha “They realize how close to home substandard housing can be. It can be difficult to get out of that situation without a hand up.”

(L-R) Marlene, Jean, Raoul, and Sena Djidjoho (Photo courtesy of Marlene Djidjoho)
(L-R) Marlene, Jean, Raoul, and Sena Djidjoho (Photo courtesy of Marlene Djidjoho)

Marlene said she is thankful Habitat for Humanity provided her family with stability.

“People in low-income brackets have to juggle multiple jobs, issues with transportation and medical needs,” said Emily Nohner, the program director for Habitat for Humanity of Omaha. “Having housing is a huge part in helping them get a leg up in life.”

Habitat for Humanity homes provide families like the Djidjohos with independence, community engagement, and better education.

“Our journey taught us to fight for what we want,” Marlene said. “Nothing is going to come easy.

Since they moved in, Marlene graduated from high school and earned a scholarship to the College of Saint Mary’s. The Marie Curie Scholarship is worth $20,000 annually.

Marlene takes 20 credit hours a semester, works 16 hours a week, and drives her siblings to school in the mornings.

“When you’re an immigrant you have no choice but to succeed,” Marlene said. “If you mess up, then your whole entire journey is insignificant. I have high expectations for myself because I know where I came from, and I know how far I’ve come.”