Justus Uwayesu of Rwanda - Invisible children do have dreams too
Imagine you were born in Rwanda a few months into the 1990 Rwandan war. Imagine both your parents were killed in the 1994 genocide, leaving your older brother, a teenage boy, yourself, an almost three years old boy and your two young sisters with no one to take care of you. Imagine you were taken in by a humanitarian organisation for a while but ultimately ended up on the cruel streets, at 6 years old. How long would you survive the hardships of street life? Wouldn’t you ask yourself what would have been the point of surviving the war and Genocide if it was for your life to end in the streets of a broken country barely emerging from a most horrendous tragedy?
Today, I am inspired by Justus Uwayesu of Rwanda. Justus was born in Mayange, in the natural region of Bugesera, in the south eastern part of Rwanda. The Bugesera was one of the poorest regions of Rwanda, with harsh weather conditions and frequent episodes of droughts and famine.
Justus was born sometime in 1991. There are unfortunately no records of his birth as his parents, the normal custodians of our childhood memories and whom would have gradually taught him who he was and where he came from were killed during the Rwandan Genocide. His older brother, who at that time was a teenager, took Justus and his two younger sisters to a nearby camp run by the Red Cross.
The camp became their home, for him and his surviving siblings, and thousands of other war orphans. The time in the Red Cross was not easy; food and medicine were scarce and many of the kids were still traumatized by the war. What Justus recalls the most from those days are the wounded children screaming through their nightly nightmares, crying for their parents.
They stayed in the camp for a little more than three years, till the Red Cross was no longer able to find funds to run the camp. Justus was returned to his parents' house which was now occupied by one of their aunts. The poor lady was no better off than them, a war widow without any income or social support. She was so poor, she could barely make ends meet and feed the kids, so the young boy found himself begging passers-by for money or running errands for neighbours who lied they would pay him only to rip him off when he’s done the work.
One day, he run away and went looking for his older brother, thinking he was still at the Red Cross camp. He found that the camp had closed, and his brother was in an orphanage. Unfortunately, there was no room for him there, so he left and tried to find a place to stay.
The little six years old boy walked for days, not really knowing where he was going, till he reached Ruviri, a dumpster in the outskirts of the country’s capital. It was much later in his life that he realised he had walked about 50 kilometres from the Bugesera region to the capital! There he was, in 1998, four years after the Genocide, living in old car, begging for money during the day and spending nights rummaging in the garbage for food and clothes to protect him in the cold nights of the mountainous central African country.
Saying it was not easy being a street kid is an understatement. It is never and was never easy to be a homeless kid – in any part of the world or in any circumstances – but we can imagine it was undoubtedly most difficult in a country struggling to recover from war.
The Rwandan state had barely enough revenues to function properly, let alone deal with this by-product of its recent past. Society at large was in no better state, everyone trying their best to take care of their surviving relatives and trying to figure out how to survive on a day to day basis. The situation was so dire, society had practically become ‘numb’ to the plight of street kids, often seeing them more as a nuisance than orphans who had nowhere to go.
They were dehumanized, humiliated, called derogatory names such as mayibobo, inzererezi, thief. They were often beaten up by the police and random strangers, with a violence and heartlessness even few adults would have been able to withstand. At times, they would be rounded-up by the police and kept in detention centres.
Justus shares that Sundays were the most difficult days for him. Why? For the simple reason that the garbage trucks didn’t work that day, which meant there wouldn’t be any ‘fresh’ food in the garbage till Monday. Yet, it was written that his life would change on one of those hungry holy days.
He remembers a Sunday of 2001, when he was going through the garbage with other street kids when a white car abruptly stopped next to them. A woman got out and hurriedly walked towards them. Used to being abused by strangers, who were more interested in chasing them from their sight than helping them, the kids rapidly dispersed. All the kids except one: Justus.
When she addressed him, he immediately guessed the middle-aged woman who just walked out of the car was a foreigner as she didn’t speak any Kinyarwanda and was accompanied by an interpreter.
Her name was Clare Effiong, an American woman who had come to Rwanda on a humanitarian mission That morning, Clare had decided on an impulse to get on a taxi and drive through Kigali. They had driven for a while when she saw kids going through garbage bins.
She abruptly asked the driver to stop and jumped out of the car in a hurry. The kids, who hadn’t seen that she was holding some loafs of bread, all disappeared except the one. She approached the little boy, who didn’t seem afraid of her, and asked him what he wanted.
She thought he was going to ask her for some food and a shelter, and probably money. But he didn’t ask any of that. The little 9 years old, who had lived on the streets for the last three years, sleeping in burn-out car carcass without tires and who was going hungry most of the days, ask for something that completely took her by surprise:
“I want to go to school”, he resolutely answered.
Mama Clare couldn’t stop her tears. She hugged him, not caring a bit about how dirty he was or the odour of a kid who never bathed. She embarked him in the car. As she wasn’t living in Rwanda, she took him to a friend’s home in the neighbourhood of Gikondo. It was the first house the boy had ever been invited to enter since he roamed the streets of the capital. Clare asked her friend to help Justus get an education.
“I will send money to pay for school fees, school materials, uniform, shoes, anything he needs.”
At nine years old, Justus was finally able to find a home, a surrogate Mom and go to school for the very first time in his life! His two sisters were able to join him at the orphanage, a semblance of family life after the horrors of war and the loneliness of the streets.
When he was later asked why he had chosen school over a warm meal and a bed, he explained that for him school was equal to happiness. This unconscious association of education and joy formed in his mind when he used to watch children dressed in their uniform pass by him on their way to and back from school, as he scavenged for food. They always seemed so happy, innocently laughing and playing, with no other worries than just being kids.
“What I saw was a symbol of happiness and freedom. There’s a happiness that has to do with students anywhere.”
Well, Justus was certainly the happiest of kids! He was a dedicated student, eager to learn. He rapidly caught up on with all the subjects. Upon finishing primary school in Gikondo, he went on to secondary school at Saint Andre College, one of Kigali’s oldest educational establishment. He excelled in all subjects, especially math and chemistry, and mastered five languages. Do I need to tell you that he was consistently the top of his class?
Justus was a teenager with a big heart, always on the lookout for kids who needed help. Many kids came from poor families and often didn’t have the means to buy basic things they needed such as soap, toothbrush, notebooks, etc. In 2008, the 16 years old Justus convinced two of his friends to try and help their classmates. They would try and get the needed items and once a month, they would choose the neediest kids in the boarding school to help. Four more friends joined their efforts, forming a group they later called ‘Seven United for the Needy” (SUN). They would raise awareness about the situation of their less fortunate schoolmates and fundraise to get them support.
We all remember how secondary school goes by so quickly and before you know it, you’re about to graduate and you start wondering what you will do with the rest of your life. When he graduated from Saint Andre College in 2013, Justus was selected to join the Bridge2Rwanda Scholars Program. Established in 2007 by a group of American friends of Rwanda, Bridge2Rwanda prepares Rwanda’s most gifted and promising students to successfully compete for international scholarships.
Through the program, Justus studied SAT and TOEFL test prep, English, research and writing, leadership, entrepreneurship, and discipleship, and received guidance in applying to colleges and universities in the United States.
The results came in in March 2014. Justus was shaking, fearing he didn’t make the cut. He went to a friend’s house who had internet access at home and anxiously downloaded the letter from the international admissions. Justus read the first word, screamed and fell on the floor:
“CONGRATULATIONS!” it said.
He immediately called Mama Clare in the US and yelled on the phone:
“Mom, Mom, I’m going to Harvard University!”
In the fall of 2014, 20 years after the event that tor his world apart and left him an orphan, a street kid, with no imaginable future, Justus moved from Rwanda to the little academic town of Cambridge in Massachusetts, a town where President Obama had lived as a student many years before. He and another fellow Rwandan laureate enrolled as freshmen at Harvard University. With a full scholarship!
He had opted to study math, economics and human rights. Throughout his Ivy League education, Justus continued to excel in school while serving others. In his very first year, he served on the Freshmen Council for Service to Society. He also participated in numerous volunteer projects. Justus was awarded Harvard University’s Mack I. Davis Memorial Prize, a prize given to one undergraduate student every year for their commitment to diversity and community service. In 2016, he was a Cheng Fellow in the Social Innovation + Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School.
I am happy to announce that in May 2018, Justus Uwayesu received his Bachelors’ degree in Economics and French, at the prestigious Ivy League school.
What is next on his agenda? Justus would like to go back to Rwanda to continue making a difference. Seven United for the Needy, has grown from the 7 friends initiative to be now a registered non-profit, with 10 chapters in in six high schools and 4 chapters on university campuses in Rwanda and a branch in the US. The organization is entirely led by Rwandan youth and has more than 400 active members committed to making a social impact and improving the lives of poor people in Rwanda. They have helped put street kids in school and reached out to fellow students from impoverished backgrounds by providing school materials, school fees and lunch for those who could not afford them. Their work doesn’t stop in schools. SUN has helped build and repair houses for widows and has helped pay health insurance for poor people.
“I was the forgotten child, but thanks to one person who, through the filth and smells of Kigali dump, saw my potential, I am now in a position to help others.”
What about Clare Effiong, ‘Mama Clare’? Where is she at today? Well, you can read the story I wrote about her “When you dare to believe“. An amazing woman.
Justus isn’t done with school yet. The young graduate is currently pursuing his higher education even higher. He is one of 142 students selected from over 4,000 applicants to the prestigious Schwarzman Scholars – which was founded in 1902 to promote international understanding and peace – to pursue a Masters’ degree program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Yet the young man remains the humblest of persons:
“I don’t think there is anything that makes me, or anyone, special in the way we succeed, except having that spirit that tells us to keep going.”
Never lose that spirit, Justus. You are a gift to the world, and you make us utterly proud!
We can’t wait to hear where you are going next. Not even the sky will dare to limit you!