Temesgen Terfassa: Luck on his side?

He won the lottery.

That says a lot about how fortunate Temesgen Terfassa is. Add to his happiness his wife, Chaltu Tumsa, their  three-year-old daughter, Sibrat, and their one-year old son, Keol. But let's go back to that lottery.

Temesgen is from Ethiopia where he worked as a telephone operator for a state-owned telecommunications company.

“Opportunities are limited [in Ethiopia]. Chances are very narrow you can grow in the future," Temesgen said.

After winning the U.S. visa lottery, he immigrated to the United States in 2007, making his home first in Washington, D.C. before relocating to Portland one year later, with the help of a sponsor.

“As you remember, getting a job in 2008 was very tough because it was recession time,” Temesgen added.

He began work as a caregiver at a residential facility, and soon after he received training to become a certified nursing assistant. Last year he accepted a position at a Legacy Health System hospital. He also takes classes at Portland Community College to become a registered nurse.

In Ethiopia, Chaltu Tumsa was also a nurse. Once her children are school age, she hopes to return to her nursing career. But first, she will go back to school to overcome a few language barriers.

This young family of four was living in a one-bedroom income-based housing complex on the far northeast side when they applied to the Habitat for Humanity homeowner program last August.

"Initially I thought I didn't get in and I felt bad," said Temesgen. "Then they told me I'm in and that was amazing!"

He said when they got the word, he and his wife hugged each other, jumped up and down, then immediately began planning how they would earn their 300 sweat equity hours, how they would pay their monthly mortgage* and how they would now build their family's new future.

That was in December, and in January Temesgen started working at Gresham ReStore one day each week. So far he has accumulated over 30 sweat equity hours volunteering at The ReStore. Habitat for Humanity Portland Metro East will break ground on their new 3-bedroom home in Cully Commons later this month.

"I'd like a fixed spot for my kids, you know?" Temesgen said. "I've been moving the last two or three years-- I've been moving around different kinds of apartments because of affordability. But this time I'm happy I've got a common place where my kids can grow up in a common school and neighborhood. That's what I wish! I see this as a foundation because I never owned a house. So right now all of a sudden I got accepted into this program and become a homeowner and that is unbelievable. I can't imagine that this happened!”

Of course, Temesgen is anxious to get started helping to build his home and the homes of his neighbors at Cully Commons. He claims he doesn’t have a lot of experience in construction, but he’s eager to learn more. He’ll get that opportunity at the build, but he will also have opportunities to learn other facets of being a homeowner--including making repairs and budgeting--at special education classes held throughout the year.

It takes hard work, and he is willing to do it. He continues to work on his own language skills, too. Temesgen said he learned English mostly after he arrived in the U.S. but he had the advantage of taking English language classes as a high school student in Ethiopia. The students didn't converse in it, but it gave Temesgen the base he builds on now. Temesgen says grasping the meanings of American idioms is particularly challenging.

What does Temesgen do when he's not at work, going to classes or volunteering at The ReStore? This industrious new homebuyer says he can be found playing with his children or listening to NPR. Yes, he's a big fan of NPR programming, especially news and his favorite radio show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." He also enjoys listening to gospel music.

If things go to plan, Temesgen, Chaltu, Sibrat and Keol will be handed the keys to their new home next winter. With luck...and hard work, it could be just in time for the holidays.


  • Children of homeowners are 116 percent more likely to graduate from college compared with children in families who do not own their homes.
  • After completing 300 sweat equity hours, Habitat homebuyers sign their affordable mortgages and make monthly payments that are based on no more than 30% of their monthly income. These payments go into the Revolving Fund for Humanity to pay it forward, helping to build more homes.





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