Our Grant and Communications Writer got a chance to go visit Chuol, one of our program graduates, at his newly purchased house and to help tell his story.
I’d heard a lot about Chuol from my co-workers here at Covenant House Alaska before I ever met him—the ones who’ve known him since he first enrolled in our Rights of Passage program (ROP) and came to live at the Dena’ina House two years ago. I was curious about the young Sudanese immigrant whose name brings waves of warmth and pride across the faces of even my toughest friends.
They all spoke of his unshakable patience, his amazing work ethic, his humility, his refusal to say an unkind word about anyone, for any reason. I tagged along with Heidi Huppert, Covey’s Director of Housing, to go visit Chuol at his new house—the one he just closed on at the ripe old age of 22.
There are Tibetan prayer flags hanging over the front gate to his yard, and inside is impeccably clean, with artwork of African landscapes and simple furnishings. Chuol greeted us in a crisp, blue button-down shirt and slacks, as he was preparing to leave for work once we were done talking. He is soft-spoken and shy, but also confident and determined. It took all of five minutes for me to recognize his depth of kindness, his good soul, and wisdom far beyond his years.
“When I was a little kid,” Chuol told me, “I was playing in the river in South Sudan, where I was born, and I was bitten by a snake. My leg had to be amputated below the knee.” This was part of the reason he went to boarding school in Nairobi when he was five years old, as it was a facility and a city in which he had a better shot at an education and could get around more easily on a prosthesis. “When I finished high school in 2016, I couldn’t go home to Sudan because of the conflict going on there. My Kenyan teachers told me I should go to the U.S.”
Heidi asked Chuol about the two 8×10 framed photos sitting on the coffee table in the middle of the room, of a small village made up of seven or eight wide, cone-shaped grass huts and a few dozen cows. As he talked, the significance of their placement became clear—not on a wall, or elsewise situated around the living room where one might normally place photos of that size, but as the very centerpiece of his first home.
“These pictures are from a woman who came from South Sudan where my family lives, she brought them to me. She met my mom,” he said, looking down for a moment at his hands. “It’s been almost 17 years since I saw her and my sisters.”
Chuol wasn’t able to go back to Sudan at all before immigrating to Alaska given the severity of the on-going war there and, until recently, as there is no mail or phone service in the rural area where he was born, he was not sure that his mother or sisters were alive. The woman who brought him the photos also brought him his first news that his family is alive and well.
“It’s a long journey and I don’t know when can happen,” he says, “but, I will make a way to see them.”
“When I first came to Anchorage through a Catholic Social Services refugee program,” he tells us, “I moved into a house with other refugees and lived there for 8 months, but then my roommates moved out of the state and I was on my own. My boss at NineStar, where I worked then, told me about Covenant House and helped me do an application for the ROP program, and I was accepted and moved in on May 31st 2017. I liked ROP right away. Because of boarding school, I was used to living with lots of kids, so that wasn’t hard for me.”
Chuol started applying for jobs right away after moving into ROP. He doesn’t have a car, but got a bicycle through the program and found not one, but two jobs, which he still has, at Walmart and at Fire Island Bakery. He saved every penny he possibly could over the course of his time at ROP, and was very careful with his spending. Heidi told me Chuol use to hand wash his clothes and then hang them to dry so that he didn’t have to use quarters to do laundry.
One day, she was reviewing his bank statements—a requirement at ROP, where you have to be actively employed or job hunting, and paying a proportionate amount of rent each month as practice for independent living. When she saw the total Chuol had accumulated in his savings account she thought, “Oh wow, this kid is going to buy a house!”
Turns out, she was right. “A Cook Inlet Housing program helped me to buy this house,” he says. “Once I saved a certain amount of money, which I had to do over a length of time—6 months—to show that I was able to maintain my savings, they matched it with enough money to cover the closing costs.”
Eileen Wright, Chuol’s Permanency Navigator through Covenant House’s Housing Program took him to every appointment and signing during the home loan process, which is an overwhelming ordeal for anyone of any age.
“I am very proud,” Chuol said, smiling shyly. “Everyone at ROP helped me to do this. They helped me find programs that I qualified for, and one of my caseworker’s friends helped me with the real estate process. I don’t think without Heidi, Eileen, ROP and my mentor I would have been able to do this, and to be where I am today,” Chuol says. “I just want other young people who are struggling to know, you don’t have to give up. There are places that will help you.”
At the same time he was closing on the house, he was also finishing his GED and English classes, while working both his jobs. “It was really hard. I failed the English test three times before I finally passed, and there were times when I was studying that I was really frustrated, but I always went back to the drawing board. Jen [an ROP Caseworker] helped me a lot. I would just tell myself not to give up. And that’s what I would say to other young people who become homeless—I would tell them that they shouldn’t feel like homelessness is the end of their lives, that they shouldn’t lose hope. You always have hope, as long as you’re still alive, as long as you’re working toward something. I never felt hopeless. I just stayed busy, and was patient. You just have to take things step by step. ”
When we asked what he would say to people who might think he’s too young to be a homeowner already, he told us, “I wouldn’t agree with them. It doesn’t matter how old you are. I work hard, why would I pay rent until I’m 30? I like working—to me it’s a privilege, and I feel like this is my time to do everything I can, while I’m still young. I just hope my story will inspire people.”
Chuol is going to do big things, of that we are sure. Each step he is taking in his life now is toward his larger goal, of being able to help others the way people in our community stepped up to help him. “I’m going to college to study politics, to learn how the government functions so that I can do human rights work someday. English is my third language, and I speak Arabic and Swahili, so I can help people to talk.”
“I like living by myself, though it is a big change, I want to plant a garden, and grow sunflowers by my front door. But I’ll be back to ROP to visit a lot. I still call it home. I like to make dinner and hang out with the other kids there. At ‘home’, we all come from different backgrounds, different families, I like that. And I love Alaska! I would say it’s my favorite place. I love the snow and I’ve made myself a family here. Also, there are very few bugs, and no snakes!”