William Twayigize is a Hutu who miraculously survived horrific experiences as a refugee, a Tutsi prisoner, and a Nairobi street boy to complete an elite education and achieve a distinguished academic career.
Byron Harris: Don’t tell William Twayigize there are no miracles in the world. He spent much of his early life in terror, ensnared in a bloody conflict between two African tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis. William was a Hutu, born in Rwanda. When he was 18, Tutsis shot him in the ankle. The wound became infected so badly his leg was scheduled to be amputated. As he was on the operating table, though, a sudden power outage postponed the amputation. When power was restored three days later the doctor noticed movement in William’s toes and decided that the wound might heal after all. William’s leg was spared. He was able to continue a horror-filled six-year hopscotch 6,000 miles through Central Africa to evade the war.
William. They used to come and take people every day, people to kill. In fact, they came and took me and they beat me and they put a rope around my neck. Three men, three Tutsi men, they wanted to strangle me and I fought with them. Byron: The worst came at a Tutsi prison camp. There was no food. His only possession was a Bible, which he used to sustain himself and other captives who he organized into a religious fellowship. William: We were just laying down on the floor waiting to die because they had denied us food. It had been almost two weeks without food. And without water. So we knew we were going to die. People had been dying every day, every week, taking bodies. I remember one time we spent the whole week with 80 bodies until those bodies started rotting away. And we were with them. So, you could look at those bodies of the people you knew, and then say, God, this is how I will look tomorrow, if not today. Sometimes they would just leave the dead bodies there so that they tortured us emotionally. Byron: Emotional torment, yes, but he suffered physically in a torture chamber with 500 other people. William: A Tutsi officer came in with a handheld grenade, and he threw the grenade into the torture chamber. 18 people died instantly because of injuries, and I sustained massive injuries on my legs. The grenade broke my tibia and they thought I was dead, too. So when the two soldiers came to collect the bodies to take them to the mortuary, as they always did every morning when they knew they had killed some people, my body was carried to the mortuary under 17 bodies. There was this lady who was a medical student. She was doing the research on the dead bodies, the procedures of taking care of the dead bodies. So she had to check everything to make sure that each one of us was already dead. And to her surprise, she found that I still had this faint pulse in me. So she rushed me to the clinic. They nursed my injuries. They revived me and I stayed there for some time. Byron: Being left for dead and saved by a medical student was one of the many miracles that helped William not only survive, but eventually prosper.
William: After I was treated. They released me. I went home. When I arrived at home, I realized that they had destroyed everything, our village. They had killed my father, my siblings, my mother. I didn’t know where my mother was, and all the neighbors I knew had been killed. Byron: From Rwanda, he made his way to Nairobi, Kenya. William: I ended up on the streets as a street boy, just begging all passersby, every pedestrian, every motorist, begging food from them. So what we used to do as beggars (we were refugees from Ethiopia, from Congo, from Rwanda, from Somalia) we used to approach motorists. So I approached this motorist and, I stretched my hand out begging. Luckily, he lowered his window. And he smiled at me and he said, how are you doing? I said, I’m mortified. I’m very hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days. Then he said, you don’t look like a beggar. I told him, actually, I’m a classic beggar. I’m a qualified beggar. He laughed. Then he said, I’m in a rush, but have this $20. Take it and go and look for food. I’m going for a meeting, a conference in Geneva. I will be back in two weeks. I would like to see you. I told him, you’ll find me. I stay in this bush. There were bushes, flower bushes, near the intersection. And, that’s where I was staying. So I told him, you’ll find me. So I thought the story had ended there. He left and I was grateful to God that I got that 20 because it was a lot of money. It was the largest amount of money I had ever touched. And we went and bought food, rice, beans, and such. So I brought all the refugee boys that used to live in that bush together, and told them, come and eat. At least we have two weeks of eating without going to beg. Byron: To his shock, William’s benefactor returned. William: He was looking for me with this luxurious big car. And then he said, I’m looking for William. So other refugees came in to look for me where I was laying in the bush. And they said, your friend is back. So I was excited. Then another guy told me, William, be careful. These rich people, you don’t know how they make money. Most of them, they sacrifice people. And so, it might be a sacrifice. He might be looking for sacrifices to give it to someone else so that he gets more money. Then I looked at my friend and told him, whether I become a sacrifice or not, I’m still a sacrifice here anyway. Because you look at the kind of life we are leading; we are going to die here. So if he can sacrifice me and make more money and give more money to other people the same way he did, I’m ready to become his sacrifice. So I went and talked to him and he said, would you like to go to church with me? I told him, you can see I’m very smelly. I had not taken any shower in like four months. a very long time because the only way that we could take a shower, was when it was raining. That’s the only way that we could take a shower. And when we got to that church, the man introduced me to his wife and his son. Then they put me in the middle and made me very comfortable. And then after the preaching, they asked me if I wanted to share a lunch meal with them. I said yes, and they took me to their house. When I arrived at that house, it was something I had never seen. Very clean and very fancy place. I said, oh God, you have blessed people, but thank you, you have blessed them. And also they are very kind people and they are sharing. They said, you are welcome in this house. God blessed us this house to welcome visitors. You are our guest. So we shared the meal. Then after the meal they said, William, we have been praying for you. And there is a voice from God telling us that we should take care of you until you are back on your feet. And because of that, we would like to take you out of the streets and get you a room. And here is the money. They gave me $50. Here is the money; go look for a room to rent. Make sure that the room you rent is a one bedroom, self-contained. It has water and electricity. We want you to be comfortable after you have gotten a place to stay. Then we will come and help you. Then they gave me another 15 and said, this 15 is for you to buy food. And once you are established, let us know so that we can visit you. So, I went to look for a place, and I rented a place. Then they came, and they paid for the whole year. They said every three months we’ll do shopping for you. We want you to be comfortable. You have suffered a lot. We want God to use us to know what we can do to make your life better. So this is the first step. And also we want you to register in an English and computer college so that you can learn the basic English and also you learn how to use a computer as a way to prepare you so that you can become more comfortable. So after some time, then they took me to another college. I performed well in that college.
Byron: It was the beginning of what would be a shining academic career. William: They came and they asked me if I wanted to go to university. Imagine you are a beggar on the street and someone tells you that you wanted to go to university. I didn’t know what to say. I just cried. I just cried and shook my head and said, but it’s very, very hard. I was so worried. I told God, I wanted to study, to put in all the effort, so that even if I fail, I wouldn’t blame myself. Because you have done for me, And I want not to disappoint you. So, to my surprise, the first semester, I had done very well. And so when I look at the grade, I was so happy. And, uh, then I regained self-confidence from that time. Byron: His sponsoring family ran out of money. But then a fellow student William was helping gave him the name of another possible sponsor, a family named Englund. William made a bold move. Not even knowing the Englunds, he emailed them anyway and asked for help with his education. To his surprise, they replied right away. William: We have been praying, asking God to provide us someone who is in need that we can help pay for the school fees at least. So you are an answer to our prayers. I said, wait a minute. Is this a scam or is it real? How could someone reply to you saying that you are an answer to the prayers we have been praying and yet you are begging from them? I just looked to the ceiling and said, thank you, God. So it was a wonderful. That’s how the Englunds actually helped me throughout my life all the way. So when I came to the U. S., I had a dream. I told God when I landed at the Boston International Airport, I told God, thank you, God. You have an arm now and brought me to the land of opportunities.
I’m very grateful to America for giving me this opportunity to have a country that I can call home. It was a country where I can speak out. In other countries, I cannot have this opportunity to tell my own side of story. But America, because of its freedom, it’s a democracy.
Byron: Still, he discovered that while in Africa he was a man, in America, he was a black man. William: Being black in America is strange. It’s challenging. I didn’t know I was black until I came to America. That’s when I said I’m black. Otherwise, I didn’t know I was black. Being black is not a problem until people make it a problem. And so it’s challenging. It has impacted my career. You’ll find that people, even when you are qualified, the people think that they are doing you a favor.
Byron: He forged ahead with his academic career, got a master’s degree at Brandeis, was a graduate fellow at Harvard, all on scholarships, and ultimately got a Ph. D. at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Not surprisingly, he’s an expert on refugees. He finds learning English is the key to adapting to life in America, but not how you might think.
William: Once they come to America, the kids go to school. It’s very easy for the kids to transition. Once you put the kids together, they learn from each other. But the parents cannot transition as fast as the kids. That builds a kind of a barrier between the parents and the children. The children started seeing their parents as stupid because they cannot speak English. Any instructions from their parents, the children, especially those middle schoolers and high schoolers, and the other kids who are a little bit older, they start rebelling, rebelling against their parents because they start believing that the parents are backward. And because of that kind of barrier, then the parents, they stay home. They cannot watch even the TV because TV is not in their own language. They cannot understand anything. So that increases the impact on their mental health. We were looking at the best way to help such kind of parents so that they can transition and also have a part in the education system whereby parents also are involved in the decision-making related to the children in the schools, the education system, and also the curriculum.
Byron: William dreams of starting a school, a Christian school, where children can learn at low cost and promote the values that got him this far in life. Best summarized by the maxim most Americans know by heart: in God we trust.
English skill is the key to success for immigrants and refugees.
- It gives them a voice to advocate for themselves.
- It gives them confidence that they will be understood.
- It is freedom and independence.
- It is the single best predictor of their engagement with the labor market and whether they fully use the credentials they earned in their home countries.