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SSJ Spirit of Courage Honoree
Guided by God
Promete Haragirimana was born in Rwanda in 1987; he was just a toddler when rebel groups from Uganda invaded the country. Motivated by long-standing ethnic competition and tensions, extremists sought to overthrow the government; their actions led to a civil war. As the feud continued, the assassination of the country’s president in 1994 intensified the conflict and led to death tolls estimated between 500,000 and 1,000,000. During this time, from April through July, citizens fled their homes, desperate to escape the bloodbath. Promete, whose name means promise, and his family, were among these refugees.
Searching for Safety
Following the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, everyone in the villages sought escape, hunting for shelter in coffee, sorghum, and banana plantations and in the dense foliage and underbrush of the countryside. Guided by their parents – Immaculee and John – Promete, his twin brother, Slydio, and younger brother, J. Pieri, all searched for safety. They heard gunshots near and far; they encountered roadblocks. Despite swollen legs and aching feet, they had no choice but to keep moving day and night. Thirsty and hungry, they were forced to steal food and eat everything raw, desperate to survive. Along the way they gained a sense of camaraderie and protection when they encountered and joined a huge group of people fleeing the battle zone between the Rwandan army and the rebel coalition, the Rwandian Patriotic Front (RPF).
Finally, after battling dense foliage, marauding animals, shortages of food and water, a variety of physical ills, and surprise attacks from the RPF for four months, the group reached a large and established refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – so sprawling that it was organized into quarters, each directed by a chairman. Finding this safe haven, the Haragirimanas registered and joined the other residents in their new homeland. John, with a background in public health, started working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an independent medical and humanitarian organization that provides aid to people affected by war and other catastrophes, natural or man-made. Immaculee stayed home, caring for the children.
Forced to Flee…Again and Again
Two years later, in 1996, soldiers attacked the camp, reawakening the refugees’ memories of their previous flight. Many watched helplessly as neighbors were beaten and killed, their ramshackle homes burned. The Haragirimanas, joining other survivors, moved on once again; this time, the deportees faced unknown territory, a vast and diverse countryside of mountains, forests, and rivers. The challenge of traveling in unfamiliar terrain was heightened by persistent gunfire and the terrifying reverberation of exploding grenades and bombs. The fears of these homeless nomads were intensified, too, by the shrieks and sobs of distraught companions. Finding adequate food, water, shelter, and rest amidst such perilous conditions was rare. Many died.
Still, the throng pressed on, camouflaged by the dense plant life, always hungry and thirsty, but always looking ahead, always moving forward. Other than observing the daily sunrise and sunset, the refugees had no awareness of day or date. Tracking the appearance of the sun and moon, however, Promete recognized that he sometimes traveled two days, surviving without food or water despite a wearing and difficult trek.
Finally, the family reached Mboko, a welcome and silent city, free of the gunfire and grenades of their previous “sanctuary.” The Haragirimanas decided to rest and recuperate, to buy food, eat, and bathe. While Immaculee cooked, Promete and his siblings headed to a nearby lake to bathe and swim. Suddenly, the serenity of the afternoon was pierced by the insistent and recognizable blast of gunfire, grenades, and bombs. Chaos! Looking for and shouting for his family, Promete rushed out of the water, grabbed his clothes, and ran into a crush of people, all hysterical, all seeking escape. Crying and calling, Promete searched but could not locate his parents or either of his siblings.
Fear, Heartache, and Friendship
Promete’s shouts, however, were noticed by a close family friend. This humanitarian took Promete’s hand, comforted him, and joined in the search to find Promete’s family. When their efforts failed, the man promised to protect Promete as they continued their journey. Again, to survive, the pair stole and ate mangoes from neighboring farms, always on the lookout for Promete’s relatives. Unfortunately, this kindly guide and comrade, searching for food for them both, was killed by rebels, forcing Promete, a mere youngster, to travel alone. Promete had to defend himself against exiles who tried to use him to barter – as trade for cassava and beans. Thankfully, while collecting water, Promete spotted another refugee from a previous camp stay; Silva, a trustworthy man, became his companion as the two struggled to return to their homeland. As their journey continued, Promete experienced periods of sickness and continued to suffer from swelling in his legs that hampered his ability to walk. Still, Silva never abandoned the boy; in fact, he continued the journey, often carrying Promete on his back.
Crossing the border, the pair arrived in Zambia and traveled by bus to Lusaka, the country’s capital. There they rested, looked for work, and begged for food. Promete’s guardian, after finding a job doing piece work, even managed to discover a suitable home for them. For their own sustenance and to pay rent, the two entrepreneurs began making and selling “fretters,” sugared dough balls. Eventually, Promete’s “adopted stepfather” decided to enroll his young dependent in school, but Promete continued to serve as a partner in the business, responsible for helping to prepare pastries after classes. Despite their efforts, sometimes Promete could not attend school as the pair’s enterprise often failed to raise sufficient funds to purchase his uniform and supplies, or even to pay the required fees. Still, at this school, Promete began studying English, instruction that would, in time, become especially valuable.
Promete and his caregiver not only had to worry about basic survival, they also faced the possibility that they would be discovered by police or revealed by neighbors as foreigners trespassing in Zambia. Of course, the inevitable happened: Promete’s life-saver, accused by a neighbor, was arrested and jailed as a “foreigner.” Then 15, Promete returned from school one afternoon to discover that the pair’s worst fear had indeed materialized. To gain his friend’s release, Promete had to bribe the officials, but he had no cash. Once again, providence enabled the pair to survive when a friend, a refugee married to a Zambian, gave Promete the needed ransom.
Despite the pair’s heroic efforts, life remained very challenging. In 2005, Promete’s friend realized they could no longer survive without assistance – they couldn’t even raise the fees needed to travel to the nearest Red Cross camp 500 miles away in Meheba, the northwestern part of Zambia. Fortunately, they were able to join a group of refugees, all experiencing the same hardships. After arriving and undergoing a processing period of two weeks, the pair was assigned to Zone H and each given a pot, cup, plate, hoe, axe, and sickle; together they were expected to cultivate and survive on a plot of land equal to about 1/10th of an acre. The cultivation was difficult as the ground was hard and alive with snakes…reptiles that regularly slithered into their home. Alternative employment was available, but paid a meager sum, averaging only $30.00 per month.
Recognition, Reconnection, and Reunion
A huge camp, averaging a population of over 15,000 and divided into 125 roads and villages, Meheba brought together people from all parts of Africa, refugees communicating in their native tongues, including Congolese, Burundese, and Rwandese, languages familiar to Promete. Imagine this young man’s joy upon learning that some of these people recalled visiting with a woman in camp sharing his mother’s name, Immaculee! Promete also encountered others who recognized him and indicated that his parents had, indeed, resided at the camp. One resident even shared that “Your parents used to live with me. They used to look for you. Your mother used to give me food.” Unfortunately, the family had already moved on. Although some refugees, learning Promete’s identity, chose to harass him, in 2010, one provided information that ultimately enabled Promete to make contact with his parents, years since the family’s separation.
With help from administrators at the camp, Promete contacted the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, longing finally to discover his family’s whereabouts: 14 years after separation, the family was now divided not only by distance – more than 2,500 miles by air – but also by culture. The settlement office arranged a phone call for the family, but Promete would be required to undergo DNA testing, complete massive amounts of paperwork, and fly across the continent from Zambia to Kenya, to London, to New York City, and finally to Detroit before reaching home and family in Erie, PA. Although the Haragirimanas faced a seemingly endless barrage of restrictions and red tape, on April 27, 2012, two years and three months after “finding each other,” Promete reunited with his family after a separation of 16 years! Even though the family had exchanged photos before Promete’s arrival, when they met, he weighed only 110 pounds, making him difficult for the family to recognize.
Guided by God, A Promise Celebrated
After reuniting with his family in Erie, Promete, like his parents, became very active in St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church. In the parish, Promete was recognized as a dependable and devoted volunteer. He celebrated his newfound friendships with people he recognized as “peaceful… people happy…people smiling.” Promete soon began working at Spectrum Plastics, supporting himself and helping to provide for his parents. An ambitious young man, he looks forward to returning to school, earning his G.E.D., and studying to become a medical assistant. In the meantime, however, he continues to uphold his responsibility to provide for himself and to help his family. In July, these goals were threatened once again when Promete lost his job; although he diligently searched for work in the area, no opportunities arose.
Soon Promete felt compelled to journey once again, following in the footsteps of his twin brother, Slydio, and hoping to attain employment in the Midwest. As summer waned, Promete did find work in Iowa; although he works nights, he feels fortunate to have found a job that enables him to support himself and also to help his family. Although he has faced many daunting and disheartening challenges in his life, both in Africa and in the United States, Promete, true to the derivation of his name, has always sought “promise.” He has looked beyond the moment, steadfast in his faith, his family, himself, and in the goodness of others…but he’s found more. Clearly “Guided by God,” the delineation of the family’s surname, Haragirimana, Promete declares he’s found “a paradise” having reunited with his family in a country of freedom and opportunity. “Oh, this is good,” he remarks, sharing his contentment – never ignoring or forgetting the problems of the past or present – but also celebrating the promise of each new day, reaching to the future, and cherishing life’s possibilities.
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