In his home country of Togo, Akote Akwei was a top human rights activist. He came to the United States in 2005 to report on conditions there in front of the United Nations. While he was here, he received word that he was a wanted man. He couldn’t go back.
Akwei applied for asylum and received permission to stay with his family in the United States. Now the man known by so many back home was a refugee. He never thought he’d own a house again.
This summer, thanks in part to Islamic Relief USA donors, that dream came true. And this month – after his family prayed and sang and jumped a little with joy – the Baltimore mayor cut the ribbon on his new home.
“Today is the day I am stepping into the American dream,” he said.
Now, he plans to use that home to give back to the community.
The family’s journey to this day was a decade long – many years of living in small, crowded apartments, constantly careful not to bother anyone with the noise of a lively family. They thought they would live that way forever.
The beginning of their new life came the day Akwei heard about the Pathways to Success program supported by Islamic Relief USA. He started his application that same day, and soon was sitting in a classroom, learning about finances and home ownership in America.
In Togo, paying in cash meant “you are somebody,” he said. “So I rebelled against the system and my credit went wrong.” He learned to use credit and pay it back on time every month, and how to take all of the other steps he needed to take to own a home.
After they completed their classes and their savings goal, Akwei and his wife received matching funds from several organizations including the city of Baltimore, with a three-to-one match from Islamic Relief USA. Then their home hunt began.
After a long search, their dream became real this summer, and they gathered in front of their home to celebrate with a ceremony in September. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined Islamic Relief USA and other groups that helped the family achieve their goal.
At the ceremony, Akwei – a devout Christian – prayed and thanked God, and his family’s joy swelled into song and even a little dance, before the mayor cut the red ribbon on their wooden porch.
Akwei was overwhelmed by how many people surrounded his family to celebrate with them. “It’s above whatever I could have thought of, and I thank God for that,” he said.
A Place for Giving Back
The house with a large yard on a quiet street in Baltimore is more than they ever dreamed of, the family said. “Back home in Africa, we love open space,” Akwei said. Now they can breathe, move and “live like free people,” he said.
His wife, Tele said: “I could never imagine that one day I would be in my own house, so I thank God for that, and I thank the program. When I tell people it’s Muslims helping, they don’t believe it. I’m very, very grateful for what you are doing. God bless you guys!”
When Akwei and Tele look at the yard, they see future grandchildren playing … family meals … joy and laughter.
“This is our village here,” Tele said. “Where all my kids and grandkids, our people from my country, we will rejoice.”
Akwei envisions something else – meetings where community members work to help each other also achieve their dreams. From this home, he plans to develop his new not-for-profit organization to share what he has received with others.
“I want to be able to give to my community, to help anyone who believes in this dream to get to the point where I am, and even go farther,” he said. “It will be a platform to talk to people, to teach and to share.
“This is my family home, and it confirms that the dream is real, and we can have access to it if we believe, but there is a need for training and coaching and someone talking to my people. This house will be the place for talking to them and telling them that we can make it in America.”