New Beginnings

By+Kelli Stopczynski

Rebuilding lives and homes for local families

Finding Hope

If you met Elyse and Esther Gasigwa in passing you would never know the horrors the couple and their children lived through.  At first glance or even after a brief conversation with the Rwandan natives who now live in a South Bend apartment, you would never suspect the husband was once ordered to kill his wife and kids. 

You also wouldn’t know how years of serving others is now coming full circle for Elyse—a tall, thin man on the brink of owning the home of his dreams through Habitat for Humanity.

To understand why any of that matters though, you must first understand what Elyse and his family have endured.

APRIL 1994

It was 4:30 in the morning. The couple awoke to the sound of loud gunfire very close to their home.

“Is something wrong?” Elyse wondered aloud to his wife when the noise just wouldn’t stop. 

He then turned on the radio and learned Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana had been assassinated. The voice on the radio warned everyone to stay home.

The Gasigwas and their three young children listened to the shooting for three hours, unsure what to do next. 

For the family and others in their country, it was the boiling point of a conflict that had been decades in the making. Just four years earlier, a civil war erupted between two tribes—the Tutsi and the Hutu. President Habyarimana had favored his own Hutu ethnic group, and Tutsis were blamed for his death.  

The conflict did not prevent Tutsi and Hutu from marrying between tribes. In fact, Elyse was a Hutu and his wife a Tutsi.  That union would put Esther and their children in grave danger.


For about 100 days during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Hutu extremists slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda. Between trying to save his friends and family from the Hutu and doing his job with the Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA)—a non profit social service organization much like the American Red Cross—Elyse barely slept during that time. 

“I watched a young boy, a friend who was a Hutu, stab and kill a Tutsi friend from my church,” he recalled.  That’s how the genocide started. Young boys killing people.”

During the first week of the genocide, fellow Hutus came to his home and threatened to kill his family.  He gave up his car and many of the family’s chickens to save the lives of his wife and three kids. 

 “After five days there were so many Tutsi bodies everywhere…it was very, very bad.  Worse than what you read.” Elyse said.  “I had so many family (members) and friends I watched die. It was very bad for me. It’s still hard.”

A friend of the family then told him it was no longer safe for his family to stay in their home. So he snuck his wife and three small children about two miles away to hide in a nearby church. At one point, he paid $10,000 to save the lives of 13 people hiding in the church with his family. But that didn’t last either. 

“(I came back from work one day) and saw my wife crying, I saw my children cry because someone came to the church while I was gone and threatened to kill them.”

He then borrowed a friend’s car to take his family two more miles to the Hotel Des Milles Collines where more than 1,000 Tutsis were housed during the genocide. On the way, the family encountered five or six Hutu men at every corner. When they asked what he was doing with a car full of Tutsis, Elyse gave the only response he knew would save their lives.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to kill them,” he assured his Hutu acquaintances. Elyse repeated that promise to men at every street corner until his family was finally safe at the hotel.

They stayed at the hotel, known around the world and portrayed in a 2004 motion picture as Hotel Rwanda, for three months while Elyse lived with the family’s pastor. He worked long hours, taking food and water to a nearby orphanage and helping other families affected by the genocide.  Elyse also saw his family daily when he took food and water to them at the hotel. But he knew he wanted a better life.  That meant getting out of the war-torn country and somehow finding hope to start over.


Elyse went to his pastor for help. In 1996, the pastor called a friend who helped Elyse move to Zimbabwe. He lived there alone for three years until he could secure visas for his family. The same people he had saved in the church helped bring his family to Zimbabwe.

But the government tried to send the Gasigwas back to Rwanda because they were not permanent Zimbabwe residents.

“I told the government ‘No, I cannot go back to my country because the situation is not good,’” Elyse said.

The family then went to the United Nations for help. In 2002, they became refugees and Elyse’s two older children wrote letters to the UN, explaining what they had been through and asking for resettlement. 
Five years later, the family of six learned they would be re-locating to the United States.  Elyse said moving his family and starting a new life in America was nothing short of amazing.

“I don’t know how to describe it.  This was like heaven, but it’s not heaven,” he laughed.

They moved to South Bend because one of Elyse’s cousins lived here and was attending Andrews University.  But the same day the family arrived, they had to attend his cousin’s funeral. He had died from cancer.   

It was a sad beginning to their fresh start, but the family clung to each other and made it through. The couple’s children enrolled in local schools and Elyse became a dietary aid at Healthwin. The Gasigwas recently began another partnership that will change their lives forever.


They’ll tell you they’re living the so-called ‘American Dream,’ but there is still one thing the Gasigwas don’t have—their own home.
“You would think it’s easy to get a house in America, It’s not easy,”
Elyse said.

But when a friend at the local Red Cross chapter told them they could own a home and pay a zero percent interest mortgage, the family jumped at the chance.

“It’s good, very good.  The project is very nice.  My wife can’t work (because of severe depression from what she experienced in Rwanda), my wages are low,” he explained.  “But I’m going to work hard to pay for the house.”

To become a partner family, Esther and Elyse went through an extensive interview process with several representatives from Habitat for Humanity of St. Joseph County.  The non-profit organization chooses candidates carefully to make sure they’re a good fit for the program.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the organization is that Habitat gives homes away, said St. Joseph County’s Executive Director Jim Williams.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The truth is it’s much more of a partnership,” Williams said.  “And the phrase that you hear over and over again is ‘We aren’t giving a hand out, we’re giving a hand up.’  And that’s where the sweat equity comes in.”
Each partner family must put in a minimum of 300 hours of “sweat equity”—helping build their house or someone else’s and taking the organization’s educational classes.  They go through a 3 month course on financial management, an 8 week home ownership course to make sure they have the tools they need to be a successful homeowner and monthly meetings with a family coordinator.

“We tell them up front when they think about becoming a part of the Habitat program, it’s very important that they take paying their mortgage payments seriously and that they don’t fall behind,” Williams explained.
Those zero percent interest monthly payments are sent back to Habitat and used to buy materials to build more homes in the community.  Home builds generally last three to four weeks.  The homeowners are encouraged to be at their build site helping the hundreds of community volunteers as much as possible.


It’s difficult to imagine where Habitat for Humanity would be locally had Elkhart County native LeRoy Troyer (The Troyer Group) not helped bring the program to Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties in 1986. He once sat on the international board of directors

for Habitat and was close friends with its founder, the late Millard Fuller.  Troyer is still involved with Habitat but now serves as chairman of a separate organization, the Fuller Center for Housing. He maintains Habitat is not just about building houses, but it’s also about building a community.

“One thing I’ve learned is that all people have aspirations and visions for their children to have a better life than they’ve had.  They want to be able to have a place where their children can have a decent home, dry shelter and a place to lay their head down at night without fear,” Troyer said.
Immigrant families like the Gasigwas also have a very high success rate in the program, he added.

“Often times immigrants, over (a period of) 5 to 10 years, will excel more because I think they see the potential and they have hope,” said Troyer. “And they work very, very hard and they put a lot of energy to it.”           
But he stresses earning a Habitat home is a life-changing event for each family that goes through the program.

A Dream Come True

Regina Mullins once thought she was destined to a life in debt, living in her mother’s Elkhart County basement. Mullins, a single mother of three, was just 16 years old when her son Tyler was born. 

After a divorce several years later, she found it difficult to make ends meet for Tyler and her daughter Samantha. She had no choice but to move in with her mother. Then in 2003, Mullins became pregnant with her second daughter, Breanna.  That same year her grandmother died, leaving a mobile home to Regina.

Mullins saw the trailer as a blessing, an opportunity to finally get ahead. But she soon realized it wasn’t right for her and her kids.  Mold was growing in various parts of the trailer, despite her efforts to fix it. Some of the windows leaked and even though Mullins put foam in drafty spots during the winter to keep her heating bills down, it was still cold.  
“It got to the point where I couldn’t keep putting a whole bunch of money into it.  We replaced the water heater, and I was told that they couldn’t fix the furnace anymore. So if it went out, that was going to be anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000. Every winter we could pray that it would get us through until we got a house.”

Then in 2007, a couple she knew told her about Habitat for Humanity and how the organization helped them get a house.

Mullins admits she never thought she would be accepted into the program, but with encouragement from her friends she applied anyway. After going through the extensive interview process, she got a phone call from the organization saying her debt-to-income ratio was too large to become a partner family.

She was crushed but determined. That same year Mullins paid off $4,000 of her debt and applied again. After going through the interview process a second time, she cried tears of joy when she found out she’d finally been accepted into the program.  For her, failure wasn’t an option.

“I wanted my children to have a stable home and one that was ours, because even when I was growing up we didn’t have a home.  (I) also lived in a mobile wide. And we lived different places and this and that. As my mom put it, I got something that she never had,” Mullins said.
She went through weeks of classes and helped build several other homes before construction on her own home began last August.  Mullins’ home was part of what’s called an Apostle Build—where members from area churches volunteer to spend time building.

“You get to know these people,” she said of the hundreds of volunteers from both churches and other organizations who helped with her build.  “You know what they’re putting their heart and soul into, and they’re right alongside you asking ‘How are things going?’ and ‘How are the kids?’ And you know it’s real when those people are here.”

Mullins and her kids moved into their new zero-percent interest home in Goshen last October. After spending Thanksgiving and Christmas there, the reality of it all is finally starting to sink in. 

She’s also giving back in her own way—teaching financial classes for new partner families one night a week. 

“Some of them kind of look at me and say ‘Is this real? Can I do this?’ and all I do is just inspire them and say ‘You can do whatever you want. Your dreams are going to come true,’” she said. 

When she’s not volunteering at Habitat, Mullins is a Girl Scout leader for Breanna’s brownie troop.  She’s also a full time student at Ivy Tech, studying to be a Certified Medical Assistant.

Mullins will be the first to tell you how much her kids have learned from Habitat for Humanity, especially that anything is possible. And even though she personally wrote hundreds of thank-you notes to each person who helped her in her journey with Habitat, Regina Mullins finds it difficult to find the right words for just how much it all means.

“I know they already know it but they have changed my life and my children’s lives forever.  And I will always be grateful for that,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.  “And they’ve taught my kids and me that dreams can come true.”


For both the Mullins and Gasigwa families,  Habitat for Humanity came into their lives at a time when they weren’t financially or emotionally strong enough to own a home by themselves. With the help of thousands of volunteers over the past 24 years, the organization has given hundreds of families in Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties the same tools for success.  If you’re interested in giving your time or money to the organization, contact the Goshen Habitat office at (574) 533–6019 or the St. Joseph County office at (574) 288–6967.    


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