NORTHFIELD, Minn. (WCCO) – On a cold, clear, Minnesota morning, Norbert Abayisenga is headed to biology class. He is a sophomore in a sea of 3,100 St. Olaf College students.
“I really appreciate my past and I don’t regret my past because it made me into who I am,” Abayisenga said.
Those are powerful words considering Abayisenga lost his mother to the Rwandan genocide back in 1994.
A few years later, he lost his father too.
Despite being orphaned at such a young age, Norbert believes that evil has succumbed to hope in his native Rwanda.
“But also learn from being humble, forgiveness and all that stuff from Rwanda and how we can move from nothing to something,” Abayisenga said.
He won’t be alone now that he’s spending his second year so far from his native Africa. This fall a second Rwandan student joined him on the St. Olaf campus.
Halima Ingabire settled in to her new college dorm with the help of her newly found friends.
Inside her dorm room, one of her friends suggests, “Halima, you should put posters up in your room.” “Yes, I should but I don’t get time,” Ingabire agrees.
Between classes and the culture shock, Ingabire is incredibly grateful for the chance to grow in such a peaceful and engaging setting. She has quickly embraced why Americans devote a day for giving thanks for what they have.
“Thanking God for the people around because I feel like I have family here,” Ingabire said.
A family that’s helping her embrace new cultures and customs, like her first ever birthday cake, first attempt to ride a bike and her first experience at the Mall of America.
Then, just weeks into the school year, she and Abayisenga received a surprise visitor from back home.
It was their Bishop, from the Sonrise school they both attended in Rwanda.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Dr. Laurent Mbanda said.
Mbanda had come to Minnesota so see how his two standout students were adjusting to college life. But also, he was here to extend heartfelt thank St. Olaf for the student’s incredible opportunity.
“For these kids it has opened a door. And it is not just a contribution to these kids, but a contribution to the nation as a whole,” Mbanda said.
But for Abayisenga and Ingabire, the gift of education is balanced by what they give back by bringing to campus a richer and deeper culture of understanding.
“Because they’re grateful, we’re grateful to be a part of their life as well.” Michael Kyle, St. Olaf Dean, said.
But when questions turn to the terrible period in each of their lives, Ingabire pauses and covers her eyes.
It is painfully obvious that lives forged by tragedy are never fully healed.
“One second,” she says.
Ingabire breaks down at the thought of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Rwanda’s civil war two decades ago. It seems too personal to ask such a difficult question.
Yet, she and Abayisenga both know that their friends will ask questions about the genocide.
“It still hurts. It’s history that never leaves our hearts,” she explains.
But Ingabire smiles when the subject turns to Thanksgiving. She knows that this is a day to give thanks for the road ahead.
Ingabire and Abayisenga are living proof to all mankind that the worst adversity is no match for raw human desire.
“It’s a good time to have a word and say thank you for your support and yea,” Abayisenga beams.
“I do have a lot of things to thank for, but mostly it’s my opportunity to be here!” Ingabire said.