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Heather - An International Story

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

Heather is a woman in her early 30s who has overcome homelessness. She was born in Kyrgyzstan before the collapse of the USSR. Heather grew up with her two parents and her brother. She shared that her parents were fleeing the Soviet Regime and that "everyone had to adjust to the living because everything all of a sudden changed. It was hard to obtain jobs, and to live and learn independently." Heather mentioned that her childhood was not extravagant, but that the American Red Cross donated lots of food, toys, and clothes to her family and others escaping the Soviet Regime, which helped everyone a lot.

Heather went to a school opened by American missionaries from 6-13 because she had always been close with Americans and was quite motivated to study English. The Americans also helped her and her family, despite the USSR propaganda.

After learning English, Heather began getting information about how school systems worked outside of the Soviet Regime and she realized that what the politicians were saying was completely false, even though most people believed them.

Heather was later accepted into an American university in 2008 opened in the capitol by Hillary Clinton, where she studied anthropology. However, she later dropped out due to the state of the country. She shared: "The things I had seen, were a lot, and that's what made me motivated to help people because back there, there was no protection for people, no one cared about human rights from the government's point of view." Heather then shared examples of the government's lack of care. She said that one day when she was 10 years old, a victim of domestic violence began banging on her door, and the police blamed the victim for putting herself in a situation to get assaulted. She also spoke about another time she had to call the police because a drunk man was breaking into a neighbor's home, but the police never responded because they thought it was a prank.

Heather shared: “It made me so infuriated that I had to do something, because this is the thing, nobody's there to help.” She began volunteering at Habitat for Humanity the year a revolution broke out. She was a part of the "people" in the revolution until the government was looking for volunteers to help settle everything. She volunteered and even went to her country's version of the Senate to help them send out volunteers. However, after seeing how the government was really treating people she shared: "I knew at that point the government literally didn't care," so she joined the people again.

Heather mentioned that at this time there were lots of people in front of the White House, and that the president ordered the guards to shoot anyone who tried to invade. Due to the trauma that this event caused, some of her memory was erased, causing her to not remember every detail of the revolution.

After the revolution was over in 2013, Heather got accepted to a university in San Diego, California to study forensics and anthropology. She shared that, at that time, her parents were her source of income, as they owned their own business back home. However, when the second revolution between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan broke out, they lost everything. Her younger brother did not get a chance to escape during the revolution. He was kidnapped and held for ransom, however, his parents were unable to help due to their business collapsing. After he was released, he ran to another country, and that is all that Heather knows about how he survived the revolution.

Heather then became her parents' sole provider, causing her to become homeless in 2015. She mentioned that she had to couch surf between friends in order to stay in some sort of home at all. Heather also shared: "I didn’t have any resources, and I didn’t know of any resources where people could just come into a foodbank, so it was basically going downhill for me."

In 2016-2017, Heather moved down to Orange County with her then-boyfriend & now husband. She shared that she met him in a group chat to make friends in 2014 and that they began seriously dating in 2015. Heather stated that the places that they stayed at were "not meant for habitation." She shared: "It was a roof over our heads, but it was roach-infested, rat-infested, things like that. If authorities knew about it, they would have had to shut it down, but we had to stay in places like that." She also mentioned that she saw lots of drug use and domestic violence in the places she stayed.

Heather experienced homelessness for another two years, but she mentioned that the great people she was around helped a lot. Heather shared: "I knew I couldn’t go back [home] because of what was going on there, and if I did go back, because of how the United States changed me and my mindset, I knew I would not be alive for a very long time."

Since Heather was unable to go back to her home country, she got papers for American citizenship and decided that she wanted to pursue psychology and minor in criminal justice so that she could help refugees.

Heather and her now husband got married on August 22nd, 2018. During this time, Heather decided to get a library pass and read books to learn about building websites so that she could do some minor work. Sometime later, Heather got a work permit and began working with a horrible company. She shared: "I didn’t know any better, the way people work here, I didn’t know some of the things they were doing were actually illegal here. It was a lot of verbal and sexual harassment, and a lot of racism going on there. It was a very bad environment, and if I knew any better at that time, I could probably sue them for everything."

During her time with this company, Heather also sustained an injury that almost left her paralyzed, yet, the company stated that they had nothing to do with it. She had picked up something extremely heavy at work, felt a pop in her back, and ended up getting a disk herniation, spinal stenosis, and a compressed spinal cord. Heather shared that it was really painful for her to work or to really do anything after her injury. She was told to use Cortisone to alleviate some pain, however, after a while, it completely stopped working. Heather worked with this company from 2018-2020, as she was laid off due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heather looked for a job for a couple of months and began working at Grandma's House of Hope in 2020. She shared: "When I came here, and I worked here for the first three months, it was like night and day, [I saw] how [people] were supposed to be working and how [supervisors] were supposed to treat you.” Heather also mentioned that people remember her as the "yoga mat girl" because, for the first few months of her working there, she had to lay on a yoga mat in the office due to her injury.

Heather shared: "I’m really glad I discovered this place, I can relate to a lot of the participants here, especially the ones that get here that are undocumented. Now I know a lot of resources, and I wish I met a person like me when I was couch surfing."

Heather plans to stay at GHOH and is currently going back to school to finish her degree. Her end goal is to apply to law school or work with the first responders in police departments to help victims. Her advice for people going through something like what she went through is "don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. I know there’s a huge stigma of people 'oh you’re homeless, you’re not working, you're lazy, you have bad mental health, you're crazy,' things like that, but I’d really recommend trying to not care about what other people think, as early as [you] can."

Thank you so much for sharing your incredibly inspiring story with the world, Heather, & thank you for giving back to women experiencing homelessness at GHOH!

Donate to Project WHY today so that we can continue to interview these amazing people! Project WHY is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public benefit corporation registered with the State of California & the United States government. 100% of your tax-deductible donation goes to supporting individuals experiencing homelessness! :)

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Ed Zappia
Ed Zappia
Oct 04, 2022

So many people live such different and difficult lives than most of us "normal" Americans are used to. These stories are always interesting and it is a fantastic, interesting, and eye-opening experience that Arielle/ProjectWhy provides.


Sep 26, 2022

I have profound respect for Heather! She was caught in massive revolutions that destroyed everything she knew, yet she kept trying and trying. I am so impressed with how she taught herself web design in the library, went to school, formed a relationship, and now has steady work at Grandma's House of Hope. Heather sounds like a very strong, capable, determined young woman, and I REALLY hope she and her husband create a sustainable life. THANK YOU for showcasing such a powerful story of endurance and eventual success


Sep 26, 2022

Oh my goodness!! It looks like the attention to detail when translating this from interview to story was impeccable!!

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