From Ghana to Griggs Farm: Immigrant Family Finds Dream of Affordable Housing in Princeton
It’s Monday morning and Elizabeth Bonnah is getting ready to drive her two children into the center of town for their respective summer camps. Aba Smith, 12, is taking part in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at Princeton University. Koby Smith, 5, is off to the YMCA summer camp. Aba is a student at John Witherspoon Middle School and Koby has just graduated pre-kindergarten at Riverside and will attend Littlebrook in the fall.
Access to good schools was uppermost in the minds of Ms. Bonnah and her husband Tony Smith when they settled in Princeton. “I read that Princeton schools were among the best in the country and I wanted that for my kids.”
The couple are from Ghana on the West Coast of Africa. Elizabeth came to the United States after she received a green card through the Diversity Visa Lottery, also known as the Green Card Lottery. Although it meant leaving her husband and her parents, she decided that the opportunity to come to the United States was not one she could pass up. “Everybody in Ghana would like to come to the United States,” she said.
So, in 2002, at the age of 27 and pregnant with her first child, she embarked on a new life with just $1,000 in her pocket and the promise of a place to stay with friends in their tiny New York apartment, at least until her daughter was born. Ms. Bonnah kept in constant contact with her family back home and when her host family asked her to move out, she contacted a cousin living in New Jersey. When her baby was just 8 months old, Ms. Bonnah made the difficult decision to take Aba back to Ghana, so that she would be able to devote all her time and energy to full-time work. It was several years before her husband, Tony Smith, received a visa and was able to join her in the United States. Now, he is applying for US citizenship.
Elizabeth came to Princeton to work as a live-in caregiver. Skillman resident Melanie Norman hired Ms. Bonnah to look after her mother, Ruth. “Elizabeth is one of the best things that happened to me in my life. I cannot describe the stress I was in over my mother’s condition and how difficult it was to find a caregiver for her. One had robbed me blind; another fell in love and had a man over to the townhouse where my mother lived, a man who ultimately threatened her with violence. It was awful. My sweet precious mother was in the middle of all of this. Finding Elizabeth changed our lives. She is gentle, caring, conscientious and loving; sent from heaven when I most needed her.”
Diagnosed with Alzheimers in 1997, Ruth Norman had become increasingly infirm and passed away on New Year’s morning in 2009. Ms. Bonnah provided care 24/7 for almost five years.
“Elizabeth’s main concern was sending money home to her family in Ghana, where she had left behind her husband and her young daughter, Aba,” recalled Ms. Norman. “When Aba returned, she found it difficult to adjust at first but soon settled into her new life, now she’s the all American girl and as smart as could be. And Tony is wonderful, the salt of the earth.” said Ms. Norman.
As Ruth Norman’s caregiver, Ms. Bonnah and her daughter lived across the street from where her family now rents a two-bedroomed apartment in Griggs Farm. At that time, she had little idea of one day living with her family in Princeton. An avid reader, she devoured local news media including this newspaper, where she learned about affordable housing.
“I had no idea about affordable housing until I read about it in Town Topics newspaper and immediately asked a friend about it and looked it up on the Internet.” It was two years after she had submitted an application that she got a place in Griggs Farm. She moved into the rental in 2009 and enrolled in an associate degree program at Mercer County Community College that same year. She plans to become a social worker and, with sufficient credits under her belt, to transfer to Rutgers at some point.
Living in Princeton
“I love Princeton, it’s a great place to live,” said Ms. Bonnah. “People are very friendly. Melanie was so kind, she let me bring my daughter here from Africa. She is like an aunt to my children. And then Tony joined us. He works in the Public Safety department at Princeton University, where he began as a custodian.”
“My wife is awesome,” said Mr. Smith, who acknowledged that he was sad when his wife left for the United States, but it was a decision he endorsed. Then in college, he agreed that Elizabeth would come home to Ghana often. But, as it turned out, that wasn’t possible. Money was an issue.
Mr. Smith’s job has been a boon to the family, especially when medical coverage was needed for Elizabeth’s recent surgeries and the frequent migraines she suffers from.
Their son Koby was born in Princeton. “When he was very little, Tony used to take him to reading programs at the library, now we go there together,” said Ms. Bonnah. “Both of us are involved in the children’s schools and go to as many activities as we can.” Aba started playing the flute at Littlebrook and continues at JWMS.
Because of the cost of the journey, neither Elizabeth nor Tony have been back to visit their families in Ghana for some years. In Princeton, however, they have found a surrogate American family.
Ellyn Geller, a psychologist with a practice in Kingston, and Ms. Bonnah met when the former volunteered at a hospice in the spring of 2008 and was asked to relieve Ms. Bonnah, then caring full-time for Ruth Norman and also looking after her young daughter. The two women quickly became friends, with Ms. Geller, who has no children of her own, offering to babysit the six-year old. Now Ms. Geller is so close to the family that she calls “Lizzie,” her “daughter.” To Aba and Koby, Ms. Geller is “Grandma,” the one who attends their school events, music recitals and plays.
“Meeting Dr. Geller was a dream come true,” said Ms. Bonnah. “I had prayed for someone like Ellyn; she has adopted us as a family and does everything that a mother would do.” It is clear that both lives have been transformed by the friendship.
“When Lizzie was pregnant with Koby and had a difficult pregnancy, I was there,” said Ms. Geller. “I was there when Koby was born and I’m his godmother. It was a joy when her husband Tony was able to join his family; there is no one sweeter,” said Ms. Geller.
The relationship between the Bonnah/Smith family and Ellyn Geller was the subject of a recent Princeton Community Television Show, Pathways with Jennie Hartshorne, (https://vimeo.com/98751771).
Although they love their Griggs Farm rental with its childrens’ playgrounds and places to take walks, the young growing family is bursting out of the two bedroom apartment with its open plan kitchen/living/dining/TV/kids activities room. There is no attic or basement and they have already filled their one small storage unit. Still, Princeton’s Affordable Housing program comes in for high praise from the Bonnah/Smith family.
“If it had not been for Affordable Housing, my children would not have the opportunities that they have,” said Tony Smith, a view strongly echoed by his wife. The couple pay $940 a month for their Griggs Farm rental and are looking into buying their own home in the near future. “Princeton has given us so much and we welcome opportunities to give back to the community,” he said.
Princeton’s commitment to affordable housing offers a broad range of opportunities for rentals and purchases to residents from diverse social and economic backgrounds. Overseen by the Princeton Housing Board, the Affordable Housing Program offers affordable properties for ownership throughout the town, with pricing based upon the specific household incomes of the prospective buyers.
In addition to home ownership, rental properties, assisted living, and group homes are also available throughout town. Griggs Farm, Bunn Drive, Elm Court, Merwick/Stanworth, are some of the best-known rental locations.
For more information on rentals, call Princeton Community Housing at (609) 924-3822; for purchases, contact Princeton Affordable Housing at (609) 688-2029. The municipal website is a good place to begin your exploration of affordable housing options in Princeton, visit: princetonnj.gov. An Affordable Housing Fact Sheet is available online (www.princetoncommunityhousing.org) and gives details such as number of rental units, location, size, costs and brief eligibility requirements.