From Genocide to College, Rwandan Refugee Student Keeps Faith Strong

Editor’s note: This is the seventh of a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.

Moses Kabandana was born in Rwanda in January 1994, just before the killing started. By that June, about 800,000 people had been slaughtered in Africa’s worst genocide of modern times.

As he sits in a Lowell High School office wearing Adidas shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, it’s hard to believe this polite, well-spoken young man was born into such a world of horror. Fortunately, he has no memory of it.

“I’m glad I wasn’t old enough to realize what was going on,” says Moses, 20, whose family left Rwanda when he was about 5. “It leads you to think how far I’ve come and how lucky I’ve been.”

Moses had come very far indeed when he graduated with his classmates June 1. From surviving the massacres of Rwanda and being orphaned in a refugee camp, to coming to the United States and finding a foster home, Moses has been through far more than most high school graduates.

Yet as he approached commencement, he was occupied like most any other senior: prepping for his English exam, looking forward to summer and anticipating college in the fall. He plans to attend Calvin College, which he knows will demand more of him academically than he is accustomed to.

“I’ll have to develop some study habits,” he says with a knowing smile. “It might not be as easy as my past.”

Studying by Kerosene Lamp

Moses may not have hit the books as hard as he would have liked, but there is nothing easy about his past.

Rwanda recently marked the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. The shooting down of an airplane carrying the president that spring set off 100 days of mass slaughter, mostly of minority ethnic Tutsis by Hutu extremists. Moses says he’s not sure which group his family belongs to, and seems content to not know.

The past 20 years have seen him survive not just the genocide but the loss of his parents and the deprivations of a refugee camp. After his parents fled Rwanda, his mother died in 2003 and his father the following year, leaving Moses, his brother and sister to be raised in orphanages.

His older brother, Elias, was then relocated to the Marratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique, which housed some 5,000 refugees from Rwanda, Congo and elsewhere. When Moses and his sister, Gabriela, visited his brother, Moses found the camp’s conditions “really bad,” with no indoor plumbing or electricity and houses made of mud. Yet somehow the camp appealed to Moses.

“Something about it was just so cool,” Moses says in his soft-spoken, thoughtful voice. “We liked the environment. The people were awesome.”

A year later he and his sister also moved to the camp, where they lived with their brother and a family from Rwanda. Once a month they collected bags of rice and beans from humanitarian workers. They cooked their meals on coal-fired grills. Moses studied by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Finding Friends in a New Land

He attended school at the camp through seventh grade, then was accepted to a church-run school whose pastors were friends of his brother. Meanwhile, the process was under way for Moses and his sister to immigrate to the United States sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In 2009, they arrived.

He and Gabriela initially were placed by Bethany Christian Services with a foster family in Ada, where Moses had to take eighth grade over again in Forest Hills Public Schools. They were relocated in 2011 with Jason and Patricia Flier of Lowell, whom Moses calls “really good people.” Gabriela just completed her sophomore year at Lowell High.

Although he came to the U.S. fluent in Rwandan, Swahili and Portuguese, Moses had to learn English here. You wouldn’t know it from his speaking skills now, but it’s been his biggest struggle in school, he says: “I’m really slow at reading the English language. Occasionally, I have to translate it before I can understand it.”

Be that as it may, Moses excelled academically. He graduated with more than a 3 point grade average, took Advanced Placement courses in Spanish and government and attended the Kent Career Tech Center’ Avionics program. He also competed in soccer, crew and theater, performing in “Annie Get Your Gun,” “The Laramie Project” and a student-written production, “Trading Places.”

“Students have a lot of impact on me,” Moses says. “They’re just living their daily life. Through that you lean a lot.”

His Spanish teacher, Tammi Dent, says Moses was a dedicated student whose quiet personality and mature attitude endeared him to many. He’s known around school as “Mo.”

“He warmed himself into everybody’s hearts,” says Dent, noting he often posts jokes on the class’ Facebook page. “His integrity is impeccable.”

He was nervous about giving a required 10-minute speech, she adds, but when he started telling stories of his life, “We could have gone on forever. He was just so natural.”

Strong Faith Makes for Good Choices

When Moses talks about his new life in America, faith is never far from his lips. Raised Catholic, he attends Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids and occasionally Impact Church in Lowell. He also accompanies a group of volunteers every Tuesday to the Ionia Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility to take part in the Celebration Fellowship prison church.

“My faith is pretty important,” Moses says. “I believe it has led me to make some of the wisest choices I’ve made in my life. I try to follow the instructions of the Bible. Every time I follow those, I never seem to be going astray.”

At Oakdale Park CRC, Moses is active in the youth group, Bible study and on mission trips, says James Jones, pastor of congregational care and outreach. He says it is clear that faith helped both Moses and his sister endure their hardships.

“He’s got that comfort and confidence that, although they have seen hardships and storms arise in their lives, that God is with him, and that God has a plan for his life,” Jones says.

Moses says he’s met many refugees who have been through worse than he has. “When I compare other people’s lives to how I lived, that helps me go through all the struggles,” he says. He sends part of his allowance from Bethany Christian Services to the church school he attended, which is starting an orphanage. He says he would like to visit one day.

For now, he savors being the first in his family to graduate from high school. He called his brother, who now lives in Detroit, to celebratethe “fantastic” graduation ceremony at the football stadium.

He has a $28,000 scholarship to attend Calvin, where he is considering a major in computer science. But he also is thinking about a career in ministry.

“I don’t know which way God wants me to go,” he says. “But either way, I think I’ll be fine.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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