At just 9-years-old, Justus Uwayesu became an orphan and street beggar in Rwanda. He had not bathed in more than a year when an American charity worker, Clare Effiong found him.
Fast forward 13 years and Mr. Uwayesu isn’t just living in a different world, but rising through the academic ranks of not just his nation, but America’s. After learning English, French, Swahili and Lingala, the man, now 22, enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University on a full-scholarship.
He oversaw his high school’s student tutoring program. And he helped found a youth charity that spread to high schools nationwide, buying health insurance for poor students and giving medical and scholastic aid to others.
He is nonetheless amazed and amused by the habits and quirks of a strange land.
“I tried lobster, and I thought it was a big fight,” he said. “You have to work for it to get to the meat.” And the taste? “I’m not sure I like it,” he said.
Fresh from a land dominated by two ethnic groups — the majority Hutu and the Tutsi, who died en masse with some moderate Hutu in the 1994 conflict — he says he is delighted by Harvard’s stew of nationalities and lifestyles. He was pleasantly taken aback by the blasé acceptance of openly gay students — “that’s not something we hear about in Rwanda”— and disturbed to find homeless beggars in a nation otherwise so wealthy that “you can’t tell who is rich and who isn’t.”
He says his four suitemates, hailing from Connecticut, Hawaii and spots in between, have helped him adjust to Boston life. But he is still trying to figure out an American culture that is more frenetic and obstreperous than in his homeland.
“People work hard for everything,” he said. “They do things fast, and they move fast. They tell you the truth; they tell you their experiences and their reservations. In Rwanda, we have a different way of talking to adults. We don’t shout. We don’t be rowdy. But here, you think independently.”
Born in eastern Rwanda, Uwayesu was just 3 when his parents, who were farmers, died in a slaughter that killed more than 800,000 people in 100 days. He, his brother and two sisters were rescued by Red Cross workers — who cared for them until 1998. The growing number of children without parents forced the workers to return the children back to their villages.
He survived off of scraps from hotels and bakery trucks, but would sometimes go days without eating.
What an amazing story of overcoming the odds. We wish Mr. Uwayesu much success!
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