My favorite mental image of Mervat Alwan is her crisscrossing Northern Virginia in a car, delivering auto parts to BMW dealers while keeping her eyes peeled for dentists’ offices.
Mervat described the scene: “I have my résumé ready, and any dentist place I see, I just park my car, give them my résumé and I leave.”
A shy, mousy woman she is not.
But she was once a troubled one, an escapee from an abusive marriage, an immigrant in an unfamiliar land, a mother worried about how she would provide for her children. And then she found Homestretch, one of the partners in The Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising campaign.
“Anything that helps Homestretch, I’d be happy to do,” Mervat said to me before sharing her story. “I can tell how they change people’s lives for the better.”
Mervat was 24 in 1999, when she married an American citizen who was visiting her native Jordan. The couple moved to Northern Virginia. Mervat said her businessman husband was a good provider — a nice house, a new car every few years.
“When I came to this country, I never worked,” she said, “because he doesn’t want me to.” She stayed home and cared for their children.
When her husband started to become violent — when Mervat felt it necessary to tell her then-4-year-old twins that if they ever found Mommy on the floor, they should dial 911 — she realized that she had to leave.
“It was a big surprise,” she said of the abuse. “I thought he might change. Just give him time. But when you decide, you just go and do it. You don’t waste time anymore . . . I didn’t want my kids to grow up seeing me always beaten and him hitting me.”
Mervat divorced her husband. She moved out of the house with the children — the twins (a boy and a girl) and an 11-month-old boy. She stayed with a cousin for a while, then paid for an apartment for a few months by slowly selling off the one asset she had: her gold jewelry. When that ran out, she fell behind on her rent.
Mervat had become a U.S. citizen in 2007 but didn’t realize that she was eligible for such benefits as food stamps and health care for her children. A neighbor explained that Mervat could go to Fairfax County for help. As she was on the brink of homelessness, about to be evicted, the county matched Mervat with Homestretch.
“Without Homestretch, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
Homestretch is a charity that works with homeless families in Fairfax. Clients such as Mervat are provided with an apartment for two to three years and a slew of support services. “They helped me a lot,” Mervat said. “They gave me the trust and the love — and the power, also.”
Mervat took English classes at Homestretch’s Falls Church, Va., offices, the charity providing day care for her children. She attended mandatory life-skills classes to learn everything from how to do a family budget to how to prepare a résumé. She applied for a job at Macy’s — and got it.
“I worked in human resources. Can you believe that?” Mervat said. She laughed, finding it humorous that her very first job was to help other people apply for jobs. She then moved to the store’s seasonal gift-wrapping department.
Homestretch requires that clients work or be in school learning a trade. Mervat tried her hand at an accounting class but decided it wasn’t right for her. She switched to dental-assistant training.
She delivered auto parts for the eight months it took her to land a position at a Fairfax dental practice. It was one of those over-the-transom résumés that got Mervat the job. She still works there and lives with her kids in Annandale.
When things were at their bleakest, Mervat’s parents told her she should return to Jordan with her American-born children. Mervat didn’t even consider it. “It’s not a good life for my children or me,” she said. Job prospects are poor, and women are hired there based on their looks, she said.
The twins are 14 now, and their younger brother is 10. “My daughter, she wants to be a lawyer, my boy, a mechanic,” said Mervat, 41. “The little one is going to be a doctor.”
If we could go back in time and talk to our forebears, the ones who left their countries to try their luck in America, I wonder if we’d hear similar stories: hardship mixed with fortitude. I wonder what sort of help — a meal, a loan, a place to stay — tipped the balance toward the future we live in now.
Your gift to Homestretch can help tip the balance to families in need today. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Homestretch” and mail it to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.