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hen Ayan Sahal tells her kids that with hard work they can make their dreams come true, they take her words to heart. Ayan moved alone from Somalia to Canada when she was 19 years old. Now, at 43, she is a single mom of four children: Samar, 15, Sureya, 17, Sadiq, 21, and Suad, 22. The family lived in a government shelter in Toronto and then moved to a small, crowded apartment in Mississauga. With a family of five in the two-bedroom apartment, Ayan’s three daughters shared a room and her son had his own room, leaving Ayan to sleep on the couch.

From left to right: Ayan, Suad, Sadiq, Sureya and Samar.

From left to right: Ayan, Suad, Sadiq, Sureya and Samar.

“It was very hard for her because she was working and then had to come home and find herself, every night, sleeping on the couch,” Sureya, Ayan’s 17-year-old daughter, said.

Ayan works 40 hour weeks as a Personal Support Worker  (PSW) for seniors. She loves her job, but was stressed and tired in the crowded apartment.

As well as the apartment being cramped, the family didn’t feel the neighbourhood was safe.

“There were moments where we wanted to go outside but our mom wouldn’t let us because she wasn’t sure if it would be safe,” Sadiq, Ayan’s 20-year-old son, said.

“I really didn’t like being at home. It didn’t feel safe,” Samar, Ayan’s 15-year-old daughter, said.

At school, people would say that they couldn’t wait to go home. Samar said she never felt that way.

“I wanted to stay at school for as long as possible.”

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yan’s dream was to buy a home for her family but, as a single mother, she couldn’t get a loan from the bank. She found out about Habitat for Humanity Halton-Mississauga from a friend and filled out an application for homeownership. When a Habitat family services representative showed up at her door to let know that her application had been approved, Ayan was shocked.

“We cried, I remember, and we couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘Is this a dream? Or is this real?” she said. “And it was real.”

Sureya said Habitat opened her eyes. Her and Samar had seen their mom working so hard and then coming home to a cramped apartment. She remembers thinking, “Wow, we can actually go somewhere, be someone and do something with our lives.”

Habitat homeowners are required to complete 500 volunteer hours as a down payment on their home, as opposed to a monetary down payment. Once the Sahal family began their “sweat equity,” the once seemingly unreachable dream of owning their own home began to take shape.

"Thanks to Habitat, we are happy."

Ayan recalled, “What really pushed me was — because I was sleeping on a couch—dreaming of having my own room, my own bed. Sometimes I was very tired, but then I said, ‘No, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, keep going, you will reach there.’ And we did.”

The Sahal family completed their 500 hours of sweat equity by volunteering with Habitat in a variety of ways. They attended fundraising events like Habitat’s golf tournament and worked in the ReStore. Ayan and her two eldest children, Sadiq and Suad, spent time helping Habitat renovate their new apartment in a safer neighbourhood. “It was really fun,” Ayan recalled. “We painted—I’ve never done painting before, and I helped (with) the floors. It was a new experience for us but also exciting because we were helping to renovate our own home.”

Renovating the Habitat apartment “felt amazing. It felt like we actually achieved our goal in getting this house and moving in,” Suad said.

"Thanks to Habitat, we are happy," Ayan said.

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s part of their volunteering, the family also rolled pennies, a process which involved washing the pennies and putting them in the oven to dry. Ayan and her kids laughed as they recounted memories of the experience. Although they don’t remember the amount of money they rolled, they do remember that they rolled enough coins that their hands cramped.

“Now I hate pennies because we rolled so many. My fingers were always green afterwards,” Samar said, laughing.

"To just feel comfortable where they live is really important."

Looking at the family now, smiling good-naturedly at memories of rolling pennies, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t always this happy and confident.

Sadiq said that he noticed big changes in his siblings after moving into their Habitat home in December 2014. “Their confidence levels have gone up. Just being able to feel comfortable, inviting friends over, little things like that just increase morale in general,” he said. “Especially my younger sisters are at an age where they are still trying to learn a lot about themselves and to just feel comfortable where they live is really important.”

“I feel more outspoken and more confident (in this new home). I know a lot more of my neighbours now, and feel comfortable talking to them because it’s more of a safe environment. I feel more comfortable going on walks and doing more outdoor-sy things,” Samar said.

In addition to increased confidence, the Sahal siblings’ grades improved after they moved. Ayan said that in their old apartment she wasn’t sure that her kids would graduate from high school. Now, all of her kids have big educational goals. Samar is going into grade 11 in September and is in her school’s International Baccalaureate program. She wants to study business and finance in university. Sureya is going into grade 12, and enjoys English and science classes. She hopes to pursue biomedical sciences in university. Sadiq is going into his fourth year of electrical engineering at Ryerson University, and Suad just finished studying early childhood education (ECE) at Sheridan College. She hopes to work in a school or at a daycare after she graduates, and said that her mom’s career as a PSW inspired her to choose ECE.

Ayan “definitely teaches us a lot about the value of hard work, perseverance and just the possibility of living in Canada,” Sadiq said. “She taught us a lot about back home in Somalia and the struggles she went through. Even with hard work and dedication, there were a lot of opportunities that just weren’t present (in Somalia). So being able to live in Canada and having all of these opportunities, I know that if I try hard and if I set my mind on certain goals then I can achieve what I want.”

“When I go into looking at what I want to do in the future, I know that even if it might seem a bit far-fetched, it’s actually attainable because I saw my mom working hard,” Sureya said.

“My mom is really strong,” Samar said. “She’s definitely the biggest role model in my life just because she’s been through a lot throughout her life and she’s always wanted for me and all my siblings to feel totally comfortable and to have the upbringing that she didn’t have because of the hand that she was dealt in life. But she never made us feel like that could stop us.”

"We fell and somebody picked us up. We have to help others, too."

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hen Habitat purchased the apartment to renovate for the Sahal family, seniors from a nearby church and teachers from a local school came to volunteer. “I always tell my kids, ‘See how people helped us?’ You say thank you to people who helped you, but you will always meet people who need you. So help them. That’s giving back,” Ayan said. She explained that Sadiq purchases pizza for people who are homeless, and that her daughters volunteer with special needs children. “When they see people carrying shopping bags, they help. People say, ‘Your children are so good.’ Of course they have to be, because we fell and somebody picked us up. We have to help others, too,” she said.

If given a chance to speak to the Habitat volunteers and staff who helped her family, every member of the Sahal family said that they would thank them from the bottom of their hearts. “Thank you isn’t even enough, honestly,” Sadiq said. “That would be like the understatement of the century.”

“I never thought we were gonna have a home,” Ayan said. “They made that dream into a reality.”