LOGANSPORT — Ever since fleeing Burma’s unstable political climate, Mang Khai has lived in every kind of living space from an unheated house in winter to a two-bedroom apartment he rented for his family.
Now, thanks to the Cass County Habitat for Humanity, Mang Khai, his expectant wife and their toddler will soon move into a house of their own.
The Habitat for Humanity board of directors voted this summer to officially approve Mang Khai’s family as the organization’s most recent partner family. Their house on Miles Street has been undergoing renovations since January.
“The whole purpose is to allow lower-income families that may not qualify for conventional financing to purchase a home at zero interest, to have a lower payment and get into a home,” said Habitat president Kim Reid. “In turn, they help another family by helping on other projects, to keep it going.”
The house is the sixth that Habitat has built or renovated since 1993 in Cass County. The original section of the house is at least 100 years old, judging by its stone foundation, project manager Alan Riendeau has said.
Mang Khai, now 34, emigrated to the U.S. from Burma in 2007 as a refugee. He recalls the exact date of his arrival in Fort Wayne on July 12 that year.
“We are lucky that the United States Homeland Security accepted us to spend the rest of our life here,” Mang Khai said, his thick Burmese accent obscuring his speech.
In January of 2008, he got a job at Logansport’s Tyson Fresh Meats plant as an interpreter. That first winter as an interpreter, he stayed in an unheated house, using a space heater to stay warm overnight and to thaw out the water pipes each morning.
Taxis carried him back and forth from work until he received his driver’s license. Then, he started commuting from Fort Wayne. Mang Khai drove a 16-passenger van filled with other Burmese employees of Tyson for almost two years.
During that period, he met his wife, Shwe Aye, through a friend. She was also a Burmese national fleeing the political unrest. They married in late 2008 and now have a daughter almost two years old, Ching Nuam, with a son on the way. Shwe Aye also worked at Tyson for a short time after their wedding, but decided to stay home with their daughter after she was born.
As a full-time Tyson interpreter, Mang Khai translates verbal instructions from English to Burmese and back during Tyson employee training five evenings a week. He often spends mornings interpreting for friends in everything from medical appointments to conversations with a landlord.
And on weekends, he’s been helping get his family’s house ready to move in. He and Habitat volunteers have tried to have it ready by the time Shwe Aye gives birth to their second child — due Aug. 13 — but at this point, Mang Khai thinks it’s unlikely.
“If there’s any way I can take my baby boy from the hospital straight to here,” he said, gesturing at the house, “that would be really nice. But I don’t think that will happen.”
Riendeau, who is coordinating the finishing work on the house, said “there’s always something new every day” that volunteers find as they wrap up renovations. They are painting the original portion of the house now and will begin installing electrical wiring and a new furnace and heat ducts soon.
The house should be finished within the next 30 to 60 days, said Reid. Once it’s done, Habitat will immediately start raising funds to build its next house on an adjoining lot already owned by the organization.
Until move-in day, Mang Khai and his family are staying in their two-bedroom apartment in Logansport. Mang Khai is excited to own a home.
“When we pay rent, we’re paying somebody just to live,” he said.
After they move into their Habitat house, they will be investing in property of their own, he added, and will have more privacy and a healthy environment for their daughter to play in.
Mang Khai hopes to bring his parents to Logansport after he saves up enough to afford the airfare from Burma and other expenses.
“In Fort Wayne I felt like we were new every day,” he said. However, in Logansport he often sees people repeatedly at various places — something he appreciates about being in a smaller community.
“We meet the same people in the same places all the time and we become friends,” he explained.
Because of that, Mang Khai feels comfortable greeting employees at several places where he regularly interprets for friends.
“I feel like I’ve been in Logansport for 10, 15 years. I feel like a local,” he said.
• Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.