Toward the end of the Vietnam War, Laos had been devastated. The country, sandwiched between Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west, had been bombed by the United States and neighboring countries, at the same time as it staggered through a horrific civil war. In 1975, the royalist government was overthrown by communist forces, turning Laos into a single-party communist country.
That’s when Yangtoua and Yingtoua Xiong fled Laos hoping to find a better life somewhere else, far away from the war and political conflict they’d grown up in.
By 1988, they’d settled in Spokane and their family had grown by five children. Two grandparents and a sister also lived with them – all 10 of them crammed into a rental with leaking plumbing and no insulation.
“Our daughters were little. Six or seven years old and we went to a community garden,” said Yangtoua Xiong, who goes by Yang. “We met my friend Michael Durkin. He had come to shovel some dirt. We got to know him. He got to know us.”
Durkin was on the board of Habitat for Humanity and he told the Xiongs about the program.
“We couldn’t believe the program,” said Yingtoua Xiong, also known as Ying. “But we say our daughters did it. They talked to Michael.”
Soon after, the Xiongs had their names on Habitat for Humanity’s waiting list and they were accepted in 1989.
And now they’ve paid off the mortgage on their home on West Maxwell Avenue.
The Xiongs’ first mortgage, for about $39,000, was granted at zero-percent interest, as is common with Habitat families..
A second mortgage is taken at the time of purchase, the size of which is determined by having the home appraised and subtracting what’s already been paid on it.
The Xiongs’ second mortgage was about $24,000 and that’s usually paid off in time donated to Habitat for Humanity instead of in money.
“This keeps families from selling their home right away and making any profit because both mortgages have to be paid to Habitat,” Michone Preston, executive director of Habitat for Humanity-Spokane, explained in an e-mail. “So the second mortgage is paid in time rather than money so long as the family lives in the home for 20 years. If they sell before then, they pay the balance of both mortgages to Habitat.”
The Xiongs went the other way and opted to pay cash, not just volunteer hours, on their second mortgage to get it out of the way faster.
“It feels good,” said Yang Xiong, smiling. “Maybe we can retire sometime?”
Yang Xiong worked for the Ridpath Hotel for more than 20 years, until it closed. Now he works in manufacturing. Their son Jay Xiong said his parents aren’t the retiring kind.
“They can’t sit still for very long,” Jay Xiong said, laughing. “They have to have something to do – they get antsy if they sit around.”
When all five children were little and living at home, Yang Xiong worked two jobs and Ying Xiong worked one in an effort to feed the family and make sure the kids could get an education.
The large family was a challenge for Habitat for Humanity.
“Because of the size of the family, Habitat could not build a home to meet their needs within the Habitat budget at the time, $25,000 to $35,000,” Preston said.
So Habitat purchased a six-bedroom home from Spokane County in February 1989 and moved it to the parcel on Maxwell, where the Xiongs have lived ever since.
“I remember it being built here,” said Jay Xiong. “I was very little at the time, but I remember all the contractors and the people helping out.”
The family liked the neighborhood because it’s close to North Central High School, where they wanted their children to go to school.
All the Xiong children have gone to college.
“My parents have a strong work ethic,” said Jay Xiong. “They always worked and worked to support us.”
Ying Xiong laughs: “When the children get older, they support us – that’s why they go to school.”
She would like to go home and visit her family in Laos, but it’s expensive and still somewhat dangerous, Jay Xiong explained.
“The family can’t come here, it’s too hard to get a visa,” he said.
Yet life has been good, Ying and Yang Xiong agree.
“I would like to say thank you to Habitat for helping us, and to all the people who helped us,” said Ying Xiong. “And anybody interested in a Habitat house, I would say go for it.”