The March 23 Lenten Dinner speaker was featured in two articles written by Tom Hallman in the Oregonian recently.
“He Was Just Looking for a Second Chance,” February 10, 2017
“Refugee’s Circle of Impact Continues to Grow,” March 3, 2017
The following is the contents of the March 3 column:
My recent column about refugee Eric Nzayiramya is worth an update. Reader response to the man’s story, at a time when the word “refugee” carries such negative implications, has been remarkable.
Nzayiramya, 22, spent 19 years in a refugee camp in Rwanda with relatives who took him in after his parents were killed during the civil war in the Congo. He and his extended family were selected in 2015 to be resettled in the United States. They arrived in Tennessee in the summer of 2016. Then Nzayiramya decided to move to Portland.
Building a new life isn’t easy. He works the night shift at a hotel and attends Portland Community College during the day. He hopes to eventually enroll in a four-year college, earn a degree as an electrical engineer and return to Rwanda to help those who remain in the camp.
Soon after the column ran, calls and emails began coming in from people offering words of encouragement.
“He sounds like a pretty exceptional person. U.S.A. is lucky to have him as it seems he will be an asset to society!”
And: “I read your article on the life of one Portland refugee as I sat in my beautiful warm house, drinking my morning tea surrounded by art and antiques from several generations of my family. We are so isolated both in our white and American privilege that it’s hard to even begin to imagine what 19 years, much less one year in a refugee camp could be like. I hope your story helps to put a crack in that shell so many have. A crack that at least gives refugees the benefit of the doubt, at least listen to their story, at least considers being welcoming instead of suspicious.”
Those are but a few of the hundred responses I received. Other people directly contacted These Numbers Have Faces, the Portland nonprofit that helped Nzayiramya and continues to work with students in two refugee camps in Rwanda. Many people wanted to offer financial support to Nzayiramya.
“The story touched me because I have spent my entire educational career helping students with their various needs,” one reader wrote to me. “For him to want to improve himself for the sole purpose of being able to go back to his country and provide help to his community is touching. He stated he would like to help children. From my perspective, there is no better goal in life. Our being able to provide some sort of assistance is a worthy investment.”
One man wrote to tell me that he and his wife wanted to anonymously pay for one year of school for Nzayiramya. His college professor told me that works out to roughly $4,000.
“My wife and I were having our morning coffee and read your article,” he wrote me. “We continued with our coffee. Then she said, ‘You know, we ought to pay for his college.’ I said yes, and then we finished our coffee.”
I wanted to know why.
“We are 70. Both retired. I’m from what used to be the middle class, she’s from what used to be the working class,” he wrote me. “She worked her way through college, then sold herself to the military for medical school. My parents were able to pay for much of undergraduate college. But then during medical school I was deeply in debt, often hungry, so bad I subsequently didn’t stop hoarding food till my early forties.
“All four of my grandparents, put together, had the equivalent of one high school education,” he wrote. “They were tailors. My father got his Ph.D. in chemistry. On scholarship. We lived modestly, and thus are able to send our daughter to an elite out-of-state university with no financial stress. Financially we are comfortable. We read your article and said ‘This guy’s doing the right thing.’” It shouldn’t be so hard, he said. So he and his wife decided to make it easier.
When I reached Nzayiramya to tell him about the financial offers, he was stunned. He had no idea how strangers would react to his story. He told me he was deeply moved by the support, which ranged from gift cards for food and clothes, all the way up to an anonymous cashier’s check for $4,000 that could be delivered to him the next day.
How he reacted provides a measure of the man, an indication of this refugee’s character.
He told me that, in good conscience, he could not accept any financial help. He explained that he still thinks about friends, yo! ung people like himself, trying to survive in the camp, hanging on to a dream of a better life.
“I would be honored for them supporting my fellow friends and classmates,” he said.
He explained that when he was in the camp, he was helped by strangers who joined his “Impact Circle,” a program set up through the Portland nonprofit to help pay for education and leadership training in the camp. Refugees, since they’re not from Rwanda, don’t qualify for any governmental financial help for schooling beyond the eighth grade.
“I have been empowered by others,” Nzayiramya said. “I would like for people to go on and empower my friends in the camp. When you believe in someone who feels their situation is impossible, you give them hope and you have impact as you all have empowered me when I shared my story here in my new home in Portland.”
Tom Hallman Jr.
Copyright 2017: Portland Oregonian, March 3, 2017