For an Ethiopian mom making $13.80 an hour as a senior living housekeeper, losing her Delridge apartment in a fire means losing all her possessions. There are nearly 50 more people in the same situation.

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All the family had left were the clothes on their backs. No renter’s insurance.

Sesen Berhe earns $13.80 an hour as a housekeeper at Providence Mount St. Vincent, an assisted-living place in West Seattle.

Her husband, Dereje Wondimagegne, is on call at a downtown parking garage at $13 an hour. Even with their subsidized rent of $680 a month, their savings account is a couple hundred bucks.

How to help

Contact the Seattle Housing Authority at 206-615-3300 or

She was at her job Tuesday when the fire was reported at 2:40 p.m. Her husband, too, was at work.

Their daughter, Heaven Ambaye, 15, a sophomore at West Seattle High, was still at school.

By the time Berhe arrived at the Lam Bow Apartments on Delridge Way Southwest, the fire that took out Building B at the complex was in its full, devastating force.

Berhe was not allowed in to see their charred, blackened two-bedroom unit. Too much possibility of danger.

By the end of Tuesday, 122 firefighters, 22 engines and seven ladder companies had been on the scene. Everyone got out safely.

Berhe says she lost the photos showing the kids growing up, the passports, the various papers documenting their lives, the traditional Ethiopian dress with its intricate patterns in which she married.

On Tuesday, says Berhe, “I cried, I was sad, I was so mad.”

Now, on Wednesday she looked remarkably calm.

“I have no choice,” says Berhe. You keep going.

She says this was fortunate: School had started for the kids.

Her son, Yonas Ambaye, 20, a junior at Western Washington University, had stayed at the apartment just a few days ago.

“Especially in the summertime, kids stay up late, get up at 4 in the afternoon,” says Berhe.

What if her children had been asleep when the fire began, she wonders.

The Seattle Fire Department it is still investigating the cause.

The complex, run by the Seattle Housing Authority, has two buildings.

A spokeswoman for the agency says that Building B, with its 21 apartments is now likely a teardown. Nearly 50 people lost their homes, and probably much of their belongings.

The agency is trying to find vacancies among its holdings for the now-homeless residents.

On Tuesday night and “as long as it’s needed,” says the Red Cross, it will provide cots and food at the Delridge Community Center for these displaced. On Tuesday night, 27 stayed at the makeshift refuge up on the basketball court.

The Lam Bow is a place with occupants predominantly from Vietnamese, Ethiopian or Somali backgrounds.

Sitting with Berhe at the community center was Trang Nguyen, 52, who lived in an apartment just below them.

She lives by herself, having raised two sons, Duy Ly, 28, in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and studying to be a nurse, and Son Nguyen, 32, a Boeing supply-chain analyst.

The mom had worked in a restaurant, at a factory, to raise these young men so they could be part of that future in the U.S.

Nguyen stayed with Ly on Tuesday night. But after that?

The displaced people at the community center talk among themselves about what the future held for their housing.

Nguyen tears up. She’s been talking about the belongings and especially the album of photos of her kids that have probably been lost.

Wondimagegne reaches out and comforts her. Over the years they’ve gotten to know each other.

“It’s OK,” he says.

That’s what is said at times like this, even if at the moment it seems so distant.