Gumatchu Taha has every right to be happy.
In fact, the only thing brighter than the spring sunshine warming the construction site on Ash Street was the collective smiles on the faces of himself, his wife and three young children.
In 2005, Taha, a student at the time, was arrested in his native Ethiopia for being nothing more than outspoken and politically active.
Fast forward 13 years and the former refugee and now Canadian citizen is only a few months away from moving his family-of-five from their tiny, one-bedroom, Marpole apartment into their very own, three-bedroom detached home in Richmond, which he helped build.
And as he gave the Richmond News a special tour of one of three Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver homes on the site, the intense pride brimming from the 37-year-old is there for all to see.
“We are very, very excited; especially my wife; she’s looking forward to having our own room,” said a beaming Taha, a London Drugs department manager, adding that the family is hoping to move into their 1,100-square-foot home in October.
“It means a lot to us. Especially for my children. Having a place they can call their own home, where they can play inside and outside.
“Whenever they go out, they can say they have a proper home to go back to and without worrying about anything.”
As a family, added Taha, his voice now cracking a little with emotion, “knowing we have a place, is just something that we could only dream about.”
The home which he has his eye on – his family will be placed in one of them – is one of six on site, each unit also having a 700-square-foot rental suite.
It’s all down to the incredible work of charity Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver, with an assist from the B.C. government, which sold at a discount the 25,000-square-foot site in 2013 in order for six, affordable homes to be built.
Ultimately, six families, including the Tahas, become first-time homeowners through the Habitat for Humanity program, which has the primary remit of providing safe and affordable housing.
As part of the deal, the families invest 500 hours of labour (called sweat equity) into the building of the home, in lieu of a downpayment and are financed with affordable, no-interest mortgages.
The homes are also, in part, built by volunteers of corporate sponsors, such as Bentall Kennedy, who were on site last week, helping to install energy efficient windows on the three new homes being constructed.
Some community volunteers, including Chinese immigrant Yvette Luke, 59, also put their shoulder to the Habitat house-building wheel.
“I just want to give back. When I first came to Canada 20 years ago, I was looking for a job, I was in a minority and English was my second language,” said Luke, who carries out site preparation, painting and “learns something new every day.”
“I was interviewed by a social housing consultant and they were so good to me and actually hired me. I’ve never forgotten that.
“They even gave me a higher salary than I asked for. They were so kind-hearted to a new immigrant like me.”
By the time the homes are completed in the fall, Taha will have almost certainly blown through his 500-hour target, having already racked up 492 in his spare time since the foundations were laid last June.
“I volunteer all the time in the community and I work here as much as I can,” he added.
“I’ve done a lot and learned a lot. Wood-cutting, window installing, flooring, just about everything…and I’m very happy to do that.”
The “equity sweat” he’s poured into the project is nothing compared to the uphill struggle he’s faced in getting his family to where they are now.
Although he managed to flee Ethiopia to Canada, where he sought and gained refugee status, he had to leave behind his family and future wife, Dureti (which means “rich” in Ethiopia).
It was another seven years before Taha, by then a Canadian citizen, was reunited with Dureti.
In those seven years, Taha completed high school and then went to Langara College, where he graduated as an accountant.
After Dureti’s arrival in 2012, the couple started a family, producing a son, Dursa, (meaning “priority”), now age five, and a daughter, Nanati (meaning “compassionate”), now age three.
And it was while living in their cramped, one-bedroom apartment in Marpole that Taha first came across the great work of Habitat for Humanity.
“We were, and still are, living really close to each other; we all share one bedroom,” he said.
“I was searching the market for a house and what it will cost and I ended up seeing Habitat’s website and its criteria.
“I realized we met their criteria, even with only two children. I called around and I realized a friend of mine already had a house with Habitat in Burnaby.”
The couple now has a third child, a second son called Ifnan (meaning “clarity”), who is now nine-months-old and was only three days into the world when he first “set foot” on the building site which will soon be his home.
Looking ahead excitedly to the fall, Taha said his eldest son will eventually attend school in Richmond.
For more than 12 years – 10 in Saskatchewan and two in Metro Vancouver – Dennis Coutts, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver, has been feeding off the buzz of seeing families-in-need get a leg-up in life.
Asked what goes through his mind when sees the project taking shape and reaching its finale, Coutts took a little breath and smiled.
“This is everything for Habitat. This is what we do,” he told the Richmond News.
“Our mission is to engage the community and change lives. I was up most of the night, I was so excited.
“I love coming on site and meeting the people and seeing faces lighting up and people crying. It’s pure joy. This is where it matters.
“Having a calling, a passion such as this, I think ‘lucky me.’”
As for the volunteers, Coutts said they “go to bed at night feeling very happy they’ve changed a life; it’s so gratifying that they get to do something that has made a difference and is tangible.
“Twenty years from now, they could drive by here and say ‘I built that, I’ve changed a life.’
“We’re all changing lives and making a difference.”
Referring to the families in question being able to enter into the property market at a reduced rate, Coutts said the benefits can spread beyond the parents.
“If they invest that reduction into their children, that’s where the magic is,” he said.
“It’s about breaking the cycle of poverty. It works, it absolutely does.”