Harrisonburg’s public housing program provides a bright spot of hope for residents

Story and Photos by Robyn Smith

Hind, 9, has a matching Hello Kitty dress with her younger sister.

Depending on who’s looking, project-based housing in Harrisonburg is a sore reminder of the city’s high homeless population. But for those who have no place else to go, they’re a glimmer of hope. The duplexes, with their blue and beige siding, concrete porches and occasional lawn ornaments, are friendly. The families who live there are diverse. Some were homeless, some recently immigrated. Many don’t speak English. They all look to succeed. There are bikes on porches and grills on patios. A well-loved playground is worn but clean. Of Harrisonburg’s Housing and Urban Development office’s 249 units, two cul-de-sacs are for families, one off Reservoir Street and the other off Kelley Street.

Spotswood Elementary School is a couple hundred feet away from the Family Self Sufficiency program office, which, connected with HUD, supports families in public housing. Families keep their homes for five years. They learn English or get their GEDs, and save money in an escrow account every time their income increases. The Almashahedis are one of the many families who’ve recently immigrated to the U.S. Marwah Almashahedi is a refugee from Baghdad, Iraq. Her husband recently became a truck driver, causing a dramatic increase in their income and an early graduation from the FSS program. Before moving to the U.S., they lived in Jordan.


Lilly (left), Tamara and Ronnie Corum sit in their living room. Lilly’s many Lego creations are proudly displayed on the windowsill.

Lilly and Ronnie Corum live with their daughter off Kelley Street. Before that, they lived in their car. Ronnie, 58, lost his job in 2012, and soon after they were evicted. Lilly doubts their future would have been pleasant had they not moved into public housing. “I’d probably be dead,” Lilly, 53, who’s used an oxygen tank since 2010, said. “I remember when we got this house, I stood in the middle of the floor and cried because I couldn’t believe it.” Though these families have different journeys, these paths led them to the same place. Public housing isn’t their final destination, but it’s a shared step that’s helped lead them to where they’re meant to be.

The Almashahedis left their home to escape war

Everyone’s eyes were overflowing with tears at the airport in Iraq when Marwah Almashahedi said farewell to her family in 2011, for what seemed to be the last time. Her mother didn’t want her to go — Almashahedi’s youngest children were still in diapers, and her oldest hadn’t started school yet.“My mom almost, like, dead from crying because she doesn’t want us to go,” Almashahedi said. “She’s very, you know, the grandma — she has big heart.”

The mother of four remembers her childhood in Baghdad, Iraq, fondly, as if “you could touch the sky.” The taste of food, the way people interacted, the nightlife — everything was different. Though Almashahedi misses her family, she knows that even if she could return to Iraq, it would be different. She and her family moved to Jordan for two years — framed in her house is a picture of her oldest son, Yaseen, in a cap and gown; he’d just graduated kindergarten. The family moved to Harrisonburg in August 2013.

Abdulqasdar, 6, holds up an Iraqi flag that he drew.

Before public housing, the Corums had little hope

The Corums lost all of their possessions, as well as custody of their daughter, Tamara, for the second time within 10 years. Struggling at night to find a place to plug in Lilly’s oxygen tank, the uncertainty of whether or not they’d be able to meet their basic needs of survival was killing them. “It’s not like you can just lay in your room and kick back,” Michael Wong, HUD executive director, said. “It becomes an obsession when you’re homeless trying to figure out what you’re going to do or where you’re going to stay.”

For two years, Ronnie and Lilly lived in their car parked outside a Wal-Mart in Greene County, Virginia. Then one day, a pastor came by and knocked on their car window, leading them to public housing and changing their lives forever.

Mays, 6, loves to draw. She and her older sister, Kind, sit at the dining room table after school.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. has given the Almashahedis hope for the future

Once they arrived in Harrisonburg in 2013, Marwah Almashahedi’s oldest son, Yaseen, was going into second grade. He couldn’t speak any English, and anxiety over making friends and being able to learn consumed him. He lost weight over the stress. “‘I don’t want to go to school, Mom,’” Marwah recounts him saying. “‘I can’t speak their language. I can’t like eating their food. I can’t understand the teacher. Please! I don’t want to go anymore.’”

Because of her own uncertainties, Marwah struggled to explain how things would get better. In the FSS program, Sheets says that overcoming the language barrier is the most common goal for families. A majority speak Arabic, though some speak Spanish. Marwah said the first six months were the hardest. She could only communicate to non-Arabic speakers through body language. She compares her adversity to a pencil being sharpened — when one faces a challenge, that’s how they become successful. A pencil, “how you write, you have to sharpen and sharpen and sharpen. When you sharpen it, you write beautifully,” she said. Something beautiful is waiting beyond the challenges. After three years, the Almashahedis are ready for the next step.

In their living room, which has a TV, a few couches and an olive green prayer rug, her children will often read or do homework. Mays, 6, loves to draw at the kitchen table. Yaseen, 12, plays soccer. Last year, he won a Code of Ethics award from his school for good behavior. Since her youngest children have been in school, Marwah has taken English classes at Massanutten Technical Center. She practices every day, and works hard to communicate with her neighbors and friends.  When she’s not in class, taking her children to school or doing other motherly duties, Marwah makes homemade pickles. There are about a dozen garlicky pickles swimming in a plastic container in the dining room. Sitting on a shelf is a small box of chocolate. It’s meant for guests, but Marwah’s children still ask for some. They’re less enthusiastic about the pickles.

Since the Almashahedis are graduating early, they’re currently looking for a place to live independently. Next year, Marwah and her husband will apply for citizenship. “America is my country now,” Marwah said. “We are not terrorists … Why we came here, because we have to save our children and get better future for them. Better life, because they are human, like you … We have hope.”

Hind reads “Beauty and the Beast” in the living room. The siblings, who all attend Spotswood Elementary School, share books.

A roof over the Corums’ heads opened a gateway to opportunity

Before public housing, the Corums moved into Mercy House on S. High Street. Ronnie got a job at McDonalds as a fry cook, and walked about a mile and a half every day to the restaurant on Reservoir Street. The bright side, Ronnie said, was that it helped him lose weight. The Corums moved to their current home in 2014. When they first moved in, they had no furniture. Ronnie and Lilly slept on an air mattress and Tamara slept on blankets next to them, not ready to sleep in her own bedroom yet.

Having their daughter back was a joy, but they had other issues to overcome. Tamara was diagnosed with dyslexia, which made reading a challenge. Now, at age 14, she reads at a fourth grade level, though Lilly says she’s improving fast. Next year, Tamara will be in high school. As life moves on, the Corums find comfort. There’s a TV across from the leopard print couch, and two computers. Most of the furniture is from Aaron’s, a local furniture lease store. On their movie shelf, “The Land Before Time” is on prominent display — it’s Tamara’s favorite. “And I love Legos,” Tamara said. “She’s my Lego freak,” Lilly said. “She does not like boys. She thinks boys are yucky.”

JMU Landscaping hired Ronnie in September. He loves it, and will talk about edging grass for 15 minutes straight if someone’s listening. “I’m an outside person,” Ronnie said. “I love working outside.” Lilly considers herself and her family blessed. She has a place to lay her head down, Tamara’s down the hall, Ronnie enjoys his job and the family owns a working vehicle. She cooks dinner every night, and the kitchen is fairly stocked. “If you come here for a cookout and you leave hungry, it’s your fault,” Ronnie said. Though life is good, it’s not perfect. The Corums have faced problems in the cul-de-sac from others not keen on the rules.

“I love everybody ’til you do me wrong,” Lilly said. “You do me wrong and I’m done. I’m a very nice person. I’ll give you food if you need food … Over here, [some people] take advantage of it.” Wong said that only 5 percent of the participants break the rules. As his organization works toward eliminating homelessness, he recognizes the damage of eviction — the safety of the community outweighs that. “People sometimes have to fail and hit the pavement and hit their face on the ground,” Wong said. “They have to recognize the importance of taking care of themselves.”

The Corums have about two years left in the program. When they graduate, they plan on putting a down payment on a house. Next year for Christmas, Tamara wants to give up her presents and encourage friends and family to donate to Mercy House and the HUD office instead. “All we want to do is help somebody,” Ronnie said. “Because we know how it is to be homeless.”