John Jildah rarely sees his neighbors anymore. Most days, he wakes up at 6:00 a.m., eats a quick breakfast, gases up his silver Toyota Tacoma, and drives to one of the few remodeling jobs he’s cobbled together around the Bay Area for his six-person crew.

On a Monday in early November, he stayed working deep into the evening, hanging lights and building tables at his friend’s barbeque restaurant near the intersection of Capp and 24th Streets. By the time he made it back home to Clayton, 35 miles east of San Francisco, it was 11:00 p.m.—enough time to sleep a few hours, then get up and do it all again.

“This has been a rough year,” he said recently. “A really rough year.”

John Jildah works outside George’s BBQ on 24th Street.

Like many builders, Jildah is struggling to make ends meet as the American dreams he once catered to—the three-car garages, the new kitchens and developments—turned into credit nightmares. Nowadays, he’s pricing jobs lower and then working three at a time to make up for those discounts. It’s a cruel calculus: work harder, get paid less.

His story parallels the rise of millions of immigrants who came to this country as young men, worked hard, and achieved prosperity. During the past two decades, the housing industry’s growth propelled poor boys from Dublin and Managua, Damascus and Shanghai, into the middle class. But, for some, real estate’s bust has meant turning the energy and tenacity that made them rich, into forces for survival.

“Nowadays, I’m trying to catch up so bad,” Jildah said, standing on a ladder, screwing in a light fixture, a clove cigarette dangling from his lip. “It’s been crazy.”

As the Bay Area housing market slowed this year, he withdrew all his savings to keep up with bills. He sold off an investment property and began using credit cards for most business and personal expenses.

Last year, he was making between $10,000 and $15,000 a month. Now, he said he’s lucky to take home between $2,000 and $3,000—enough to cover food for his family, gas, and not much else.

But the biggest indignity, he said, kneeling in the restaurant’s bathroom, plumbing fixtures all around, is feeling like he’s back where he started 30 years ago, when he immigrated to San Francisco from Ramallah.

He was 16 years old at the time and could have gone to school. Instead, he found work at a liquor store in the Mission, earning $2.00 an hour.

“It was good money,” the 46-year-old said as he wiped sweat from his forehead, thinking about a time before his close-cropped curly hair turned gray, before he put on a little weight and his shoulders started aching.

Nidal Housary, the contractor’s cousin and business partner, described the immigrant’s leap. “We all perceive the promise and the dream in different ways,” but whatever the dream is, the mentality and stamina are the same, he said. “If we wanted to work for somebody else at minimum wage, we would stay back home.”

In the Mission, Jildah’s dream started to take shape. He Anglicized his name from “Hanna” to “John,” learned Spanish, met his first wife.

He still talks affectionately about the neighborhood of his teens, a place where you were more likely to hear Spanish or Tagalog on the streets than English, and where friendships formed between people from all over the world, each with their own ideas of what was possible in this country.

In 1982, he began working construction, waterproofing skyscrapers downtown. He saved enough to purchase his own liquor store near Precita Park on Alabama Street. In 1989, he started a construction company, working jobs all over the Bay Area, and turned profits into new investments.

Before his divorce in 2005, he owned six homes.

Jildah’s rise was equal parts hard work and ambition, explained friends and family.

“You come to this country and have all kinds of hardships,” said Housary “You want to be somebody.”

Of Jildah: “He’s one of the most ambitious people I know. That’s why I like to work with him.”

Jim Pano, a part-owner in the restaurant on 24th Street, concurred. He said he often worked with the contractor until midnight on the remodel.

“John’s not scared of work,” said Pano, who’s family immigrated to the Mission from Greece in the 1980s, and has known the Jildah for about 15 years. “Your average person wouldn’t pick themselves up and do that.”

But in an age of tightening credit and collapsing Wall Street firms, getting ahead is less important than holding on to what you’ve got.

On Election Day, Jildah met with a bankruptcy attorney to go over his finances. She told him “not to surrender” and that there was a chance that he could make it out without ruining his credit entirely. More sacrifices loomed.

Three days later, he decided to put his home in Clayton on the market. His family—his second wife, their twin two-year-old boys, a nephew, and a child from his previous marriage—could move to his only remaining house, in San Mateo.

“I’m not broke 100 percent,” he said the next day, finishing up his work at the restaurant on 24th Street. Many people have ended up worse off, he added.

If things looked bleak for the near future, he thought president-elect Obama’s vision for the economy was “on the right track.”

“I believe life is a gamble,” he said. “If my situation gets better in a couple of years, I’ll be investing again.”

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Noah Buhayar is print and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He reports primarily on business topics. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS’s business site and MarketWatch. Before coming to the Bay Area, he taught a semester of high school Spanish in Hawaii, spent a year in southern Chile on a Fulbright grant, and interned with the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s online division.

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