The Wells Fargo branch near Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Ia., is one of the bank’s most diverse.
That branch became integral to one of Zion’s most ambitious efforts to help refugees—its home-ownership program. “We want to move everyone into home ownership because we know that will end poverty,” says John Kline, Zion’s indefatigueable pastor.
Between 20 and 30 percent of the refugee families working with Zion are now homeowners thanks to a partnership between Zion, Wells Fargo, and a realtor who has made home ownership for refugees her purpose in life
A member of Zion’s congregation, Ty Dunker, was working at Wells Fargo and realized that the local branch could help refugees just beginning to climb up the economic ladder. He went to Semsa Didic, branch manager of that office at the time (she has since moved on to manage a different branch).
When Dunker floated the idea of hiring refugees, Didic began to weep. “I used to be a refugee from Bosnia,” she said through her tears. She fled her homeland and come to America in the 1990s and was already working with refugees in other capacities. She was seeing refugees from Burma coming into her branch and knew exactly how they felt. She was already able to help them through a language line Wells Fargo has. It provides translators to help bank staff talk to customers. But Didic wanted to do more. She wanted to hire refugees to work there. And the branch hired its first Burmese teller, Htee Say, in 2014.
But Wells Fargo went beyond hiring refugee tellers. It began conducting home-buying seminars at the church. The bank brought in a mortgage consultant who went through the basics of applying for home loans. Perhaps more important, because of experiences in their home countries, some refugees did not trust banks. Wells Fargo helped them overcome their distrust.
The refugees Zion is helping are taking advantage of federal home- buying programs. Families are living together—parents and adult children as well as siblings—which means there can easily be three adults with $18-an-hour jobs working together to pay the mortgage. One gauge for the increase in home ownership: the volunteer bus drivers who pick up children for after-school programs are picking up fewer at apartment buildings and more at homes. Dunker finds this enormously encouraging. He described this as a shift to a “more prosperous and self-sufficient generation.”
Part of this is also due to Lucy Nhemi, a refugee from Burma who arrived in the U.S. in 2009. The petite mother of two volunteered as a translator for pastor-turned-realtor Sonny Walker, who was selling homes to refugees. Walker invited Nhemi to join his business. Nhemi is fiercely protective and supportive of her clients. They’ll show up at her house at night, after they leave their jobs, to have her help them with their paperwork. “People freak out if they don’t really know what’s going on,” she told me. “I want them to have a full understanding of what’s going on.” And she doesn’t limit her help to real estate—she’ll help them with things like enrolling their kids in schools. But her major cause is helping them become homeowners.
Nhemi and Walker’s partnership is so effective that in two and a half years, they helped about 200 refugees buy homes. And Nhemi and Walker are not limiting themselves to refugees; they’re also working with African Americans and other underserved populations in Des Moines.
It’s yet another example of how refugees help make America stronger.