Life Changes: African refugee builds a new home in Columbia

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 | 5:24 p.m. CST; updated 9:57 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Aaron Ruvugwa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo 14 years ago, stands outside his new home built with the help of Habitat for Humanity. This is the first home Ruvugwa has owned.

COLUMBIA — Next month, Aaron Ruvugwa and his family of 10 will move into a five-bedroom home they helped build with Habitat for Humanity.

Ruvugwa's journey to the house on Banks Avenue began 14 years ago when he was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

His family had left the country in 1994 because of a bloody civil war and spent 10 years living in refugee camps in Rwanda waiting to get a visa to the U.S.

“It’s hard to get to America,” Ruvugwa said. "We had to live in camps."

Ruvugwa was able to get his visa in 2004 and lived in New Hampshire for two years. Two years after that, his family joined him.

In 2006, they moved to Columbia, where Ruvugwa knew someone who had already received a home through Habitat for Humanity.

Ruvugwa first applied for a home in January 2007, but without a job, he did not qualify. After finding work in a maintenance business, he went back in June 2007 and reapplied. When he found out he was getting a home through Habitat, he felt a sense of ease.

“I was feeling better,” Ruvugwa said.

He worked at University Hospital for 11 months this year and also helped build his new house. Habitat for Humanity requires that prospective homeowners become partners in the construction process.

Ruvugwa worked four hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, putting a total of 378 hours into painting, roofing and cleaning up. Other members of the family helped out when they could.

According to, the cost of a Habitat home in the U.S. averages $60,000. Ruvugwa expects to pay about $415 per month.

When asked how he feels about becoming a homeowner for the first time, Ruvugwa's face broke into a huge smile.

“It’s good.”


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Tribert Rujiguru December 30, 2008 | 6:06 p.m.

This story does not make sense.

Why would he leave the Congo at peace in 1994 to go to Rwanda when genocide was taking place then. Then live there until 2004 in refugee camps in Rwanda which I don't know of any... do you guys do "due diligence" before posting stories? Is he really a Congolese? I think it is ok to have the story of the melting pot rather than a story with errors which I think was deliberate.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand December 30, 2008 | 6:21 p.m.

There's at least one refugee camp in Rwanda, in the northeast part of the country. It was in operation in 2006, but I don't know when it opened.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 30, 2008 | 6:39 p.m.

There are many homes in Columbia which Habitat for Humanity, or some other group, could have helped Mr. R purchase and fix up, if he could afford at least $415 a month. You'd be helping an existing seller get rid of an unwanted property and help a "Rwanda refugee" at the same time.
I'm beginnng to question Columbia's Habitat for Humanity's selection process and building practices, considering how many homes are currently up for sale in the first ward.
Maybe they need to change their M.O.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr December 31, 2008 | 2:56 a.m.

ray shapiro there it is in a nutshell. With so many homes vacant in First Ward how come more of these "helping hand" agencies are not jumping on that "home owner bandwagon" and working to put families into those homes after the families help them remodel?

I wonder what our beloved First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz thinks about this issue and it's solutions?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 31, 2008 | 4:31 a.m.

Remodeling, especially of old, neglected houses, is quite a different animal than building new. If everything is made square, plumb, and level right off, it's a lot easier putting it all together, and the skill level of the people doing it can be a lot lower, which means less $ spent on labor. It's also easier to put things like insulation, wiring, and plumbing in if you don't have to deal with existing structure being in the way.

I'm involved with remodeling an old house right now, and it would be a lot simpler to build new. I suspect that is why Habitat builds new.


(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr December 31, 2008 | 5:05 a.m.

Then why not acquire and tear down those old falling down homes in First Ward and build all new?

Anything is better than looking at homes and properties that remind you of "Tobacco Road".

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand December 31, 2008 | 7:10 a.m.

Anybody remember those four rehabs around Worley or Ash that were in the news earlier this year because they couldn't sell?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 31, 2008 | 8:29 a.m.

Chuck ax'd:

>>>Then why not acquire and tear down those old falling down homes in First Ward and build all new?<<<

If the price is right, they do. A lot of what Habitat uses, and gets, is donated, and some of those old houses are still valuable as rentals. Ergo, they get sold as is rather than torn down.

Affordable housing is one thing, and that usually means affordable rentals, too. It's a two edged sword.


(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 31, 2008 | 8:33 a.m.

Ayn Rand ax'd:
>>>Anybody remember those four rehabs around Worley or Ash that were in the news earlier this year because they couldn't sell?<<<

I'm not sure of the specific ones you mean, but many of the rehabs on my street have sold to single family owners. It's part of the reason our crime is relatively low.

Even a $60,000 house (like the one above) can be thought expensive in certain areas of town. There were a couple of new houses on Worley near McBaine that were on the market for years because they were too expensive for the area.


(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand December 31, 2008 | 9:04 a.m.

$60,000 is highly affordable. Columbia's median household income is $33,729, so $60,000 is well within the old mortgage rule of thumb of 2 1/2 times income. Two people making $8/hour could afford a $60,000 mortgage, provided of course that they don't saddle themselves with a lot of other debt.

It's entirely different issue of whether $60,000 is too high for certain parts of town. There the issue isn't what residents in those parts make, but rather that few responsible, hardworking people want to live in bad area. It could be priced at $30,000, and most would rather pay twice that simply to live in an area that doesn't require bars on windows.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 31, 2008 | 9:22 a.m.

I'll echo what Mark said about easier to build new than renovate old houses. You never know what you are going to encounter when you start tearing into an old house. My wife and I had an addition put on our house a few years back. The original house wasn't terribly old, but I always found it amusing when the general contractor would be looking at some aspect of the old house and ask no one in particular "Now why would you go and do something like that?"

I also imagine that upkeep and maintenance on a new house is much cheaper than a refurbished old house. It could be possible for someone with a lower income and a marginal ability to pay for large unforeseen repairs to lose the house due to those expenses, something that Habitat for Humanity wouldn't want to see happen obviously.

(Report Comment)

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