Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A family reunited

Catherine, Herve, Patrick and Alicia
Jim and Alicia

This is an incredible story about a Rwandan refugee, his wife and three youngest children. Some of the story I heard from others, some from the people involved, but all agreed it is a story of strength and giving.

Leopold, a refugee from Rwanda, came to the United States on a ruse. He was the education minister in Rwanda and received permission to travel to a conference here. Being forward looking, he brought his credential with him including his diploma from the University of Niece where he was awarded a PhD in French. He sought refugee status here in the U.S. to escape the civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes.

He left behind his wife, Catherine, three children at home, Herve (pronounced Er-va) who was then 15, Patrick, 10, and their baby Alicia 2. Two older children were in Europe working and going to school.

Leopold ended up in Pittsburgh working at an Indian restaurant in the Highland Park section of the city earning $2 per hour and tips. However, the owner made the wait staff turn in their tip money and then divvied up the cash as the owner saw fit. He was living in a one-bedroom apartment with two other men.

Paul and Kelly, a couple in there 40s, lived in Highland Park in an old restored home where they were raising their family of four. The couple is in the restoration business as a team working mostly in their neighborhood fixing up the stately old turn of the century houses that had fallen to various states of disrepair. They are active members of Eastminster United Presbyterian Church in the neighborhood, an inner city fellowship where Paul taught Sunday School.

Paul and Kelly occasionally ate at the restaurant where Leopold worked and struck up an acquaintance with him. It did not take long to tell he was special. He was fluent in four languages. It did not take long for the couple’s abiding faith to lead them to their decision: they “rescued” Leopold. They took him home, gave him shelter and food, and began the search for a new job; one which would be more closely aligned with his skills. Paul and Kelly’s third floor was vacant. Leopold could live there.

The networking began. Someone who knows someone who knows someone called my brother, Jim, (a retired English teacher from Mt Lebanon) because he was a volunteer in a city language project and they thought Jim could help Leopold with his English. Jim says that when he met Leopold, other than an accent, there was nothing wrong with his English; what he needed was to learn how to drive. So began a relationship between Jim and Leopold.

“The network” found Leopold a job teaching French in a public high school. He had his educational credentials with him and was granted an emergency certificate to teach.
Two years had passed since Leopold had escaped. During this time a plan was hatched to get the family reunited. Jim’s church in Mt. Lebanon invited Leopold’s wife, Catherine, to come from Rwanda to speak to them in Pittsburgh. The idea was for her to get a visa to travel, but she would have to leave the three children at home. The plan worked, but it caused great anxiety as to how the children would fare. The adults would have been murdered, but the children’s fate was not certain. Catherine came to the United States.

By this time Leopold had taught in temporary positions in a Pennsylvania high school and a junior college. But those jobs were as a yearlong contracts. His next move was to New Jersey and a community college there. Catherine was with him and while she was educated as a nurse, she had no credentials with her, but gained certification to be a hospital aide in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, the fate of the children was tenuous. When Catherine escaped, she left the two boys and d the little girl, now four, with relatives. Herve was 17 and very much the “father.” Meeting him the other day, revealed to me a, now, 19 year old who is intelligent, perceptive and skilled. He and his brother Patrick escaped to Uganda. How he connected with a young Ugandan pastor who was widowed, and ran an orphanage school for Rwandan refugees, is a story all by itself.

When Leopold was changing jobs and thus his place of residence, Brother Jim took him to look at an apartment that was being vacated within days. The current occupant, Nicole, was a young woman who had recently returned from a mission trip to Uganda. So as Jim and Leopold looked at the apartment, they noticed the pictures of children and places from Leopold’s part of the world. He and Nicole struck up a conversation and he told her of the plight of his children. Nicole, the young girl from Pittsburgh who had been on a summer mission and personally knew Pastor Robert, went into action. She emailed Uganda and told the story to the young pastor who was able to “connect the dots,” so to speak and found Herve and Patrick. Alicia was still safe in Rwanda; her turn to escape would come later.

Pastor Robert, got Patrick into school (Herve had just completed high school) and they began to plan on how to get Alicia with them. The details are not clear to me how this was accomplished. Pastor Robert told me simply that he had made “special arrangements” to find the girl. And before long, Pastor Robert became the “father” of the three Rwandans.
“In our culture, when someone gives you custody of their children it is a bond of trust. The children were mine. I was responsible for them,” he stated with a sincere look on his face, In order for the children and their parents, who were now becoming established in America, to get here, they would need papers. All three of the children were adopted by Pastor Robert, given new names, Ugandan citizenship and passports; the plan progressed.

It was now four long years since Leopold escaped and two years since Catherine came to the U.S. and the children were now 19, 14 and 6. Alicia did not know her father, Leopold, Pastor Robert was her father.

Children cannot leave Uganda unaccompanied by their parents, so Pastor Robert made the arrangements to fly with the trio to America. He told me this tale: “When we came to the airport they asked me where was the mommy? I told them my wife had died six years before (true story) and they let us go.”

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the stage was set for the reunion in late June. Paul, Kelly, Jim, Nancy, Leopold, Catherine and other interested folks from the two churches that knew the story, assembled at the bottom of the escalator at the Pittsburgh airport where arriving passengers get off the tram on their way to baggage claim.

I was not there, but as Jim describes the scene. Alicia and Catherine bonded immediately. They rolled to the floor. It had been two long years, clearly one third of her life that the young girl had not seen her mommy. She was estranged from Leopold, but has begun to call him Poppa (not daddy; that is Pastor Robert.) The family was again reunited and temporarily staying in the third floor of Paul and Kelly’s house.

When I met them this weekend, Leopold was already in Towsend, MD preparing the house Goucher College had given them to live in. He will be teaching French there in the fall, so I did not meet him. The event that I shared was a private picnic at the house of Michelle, a community organizer in Highland Park. Michelle has a story of her own. She is from South Africa and her husband is an astronomer on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. She is also a political activist and worked on the Obama campaign in preparation for the Pennsylvania primary. She is a connector, as Malcolm Gladwell (the author of The Tipping Point) would call her. She knows people who know people. Michelle invited several of her neighbors, Paul, Kelly, Jim (“…and yes,” she said, “by all means tell him to bring his brother along,” Paul reported as he extended the invitation to us.)

Jim had driven me over to see Paul, Kelly and the Rwandans on Saturday afternoon. It was an informal visit. The boys, Herve and Patrick, were working at the neighborhood carnival (located directly behind Peabody High School) and Catherine, Alicia, Paul and his four year old son visited the site. Jim and I casually walked around in the sun, go some cold water and sat under a tent in the shade when up walked a man with a Ugandan accent calling out, “Jim, Jim.” It was Pastor Robert. He was dressed in dress shoes, black slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt.

“You wanted to buy some sandals,” Jim said, “Have you found any yet?” Well, the answer was no and after a quick discussion with Paul on where the closest clothing store might be (turned out to be past the Zoo, over the Allegheny River and north on highway 28 a half mile.) That quick, Jim, Pastor Robert and I went clothes shopping, not just sandal shopping,at a Ross store near Aspinwall (the town where our great aunt and uncle lived, and we frequently visited more than 50 years ago.)

I have to tell you, I was proud of my brother. After we found sandals that fit, we got a second pair of shoes (athletic,) underwear, tee shirts, shorts, polo shirts and two belts. I went out carrying four bags of clothing Jim had bought for this brave Ugandan minister of the Word. Needless to say he was overjoyed.

It was on our return to Highland Park after the shopping spree that Paul told us about Michelle’s Sunday afternoon picnic. I think right then and there Jim decided to come back to HP after our church services. He said there was another opportunity that I did not fully understand, but a phone call later he announced we would be going to the Highland Park picnic. I was glad we did.

Highland Park is about ½ hour of driving through downtown Pittsburgh and up the Allegheny River. It is not easy to get to and you go through all sorts of seedy neighborhoods, but once you are there you are in the early 1900s albeit a bit more run down today. But hey, Paul the contractor reports that houses in that neighborhood are selling for $4-500 K. He pointed out one he had painted and roofed, a large red brick, that was purchased for $80K five years ago and resold recently for $450K; go figure.

But this tale is not about neighborhoods or property values it is about people. The work of some very common Americans who see needs, take steps, slowly but surely, over time and help others. In the case of Leopold and Catherine it was some African brethren in civil war torn Rwanda, who stepped up and took action. But it could be anyone, anywhere. When concerned people see the need they very quietly take action. Unassuming, no flash, no pizzazz, no credit, in the middle of raising a family (Paul and Kelly) they invited “foreigners” into their home. When a man needed money (over time), to learn how to drive a car, to have help in rescuing his wife, when a heroic pastor needed clothes, someone stepped in. When the future is uncertain because of our bureaucracy, someone who knows someone steps in. When smiles reappear on children’s faces, I am humbled and a family is united.

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