Updated: February 1, 2013 at 12:00 am
When 19-year-old Christian Ndushabandi receives a Mile High Youth Corps award and gives a speech at the state Capitol Monday before a crowd of legislators, federal officials and others, his mother won’t be there.
Instead, Elise Lukambo is in the hospital having an appendectomy.
“I feel sad that she won’t be there,” Ndushabandi says. But he shrugs it off. A former school teacher, she taught him that in the grand scheme of things such disappointments are not earthshaking. Not like the Rwanda genocide and other warfare that tore the family asunder and set them on a path that has led Ndushabandi to this honorary moment.
Last week, he sat in his family’s Colorado Springs apartment below a photo of his late father.
He’d been working on the talk he will give, and plans to spend a few minutes speaking about his love of conservation. But part of that is how he got here, a journey that began with his family’s terror during the 100 days in 1994 when up to one million were killed in a civil war in which tribal Hutus laid waste to the Tutsis.
“I used to be ashamed to tell about the bad things that occurred. But now I am relieved to talk about it.”
He wants to tell his family’s painful story, he says, because, “The genocide is something not to forget. If people know, maybe it won’t happen again.”
It was early evening in the small city of Gitarama when Tutsis were dragged from their homes and herded into the streets by Hutu killing groups, some of them neighbors, armed with knives and machetes.
Lukambo, who was pregnant, was attacked. A machete cut deep into her shoulder and the back of her head and neck. She fell and was thought dead.
Ndushabandi was only a year old at the time. In the mayhem, his Hutu babysitter pretended he was hers, strapped him to her back and fled the carnage. The toddler was returned to his family two days later.
But it wasn’t over. A week later, his father Cassien Ndushabandi, a superintendent of schools, was murdered in his office.
Lukambo later married her husband’s brother, as is custom. They were living in the Congo, and again the warfare hit. He was killed during the ethnic strife.
Alone with four children, Lukambo sought help from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They ended up in Colorado Springs and received resettlement help from Lutheran Family Services, Rocky Mountain Refugee and Asylee program. The agency helped with a variety of social services, including an apartment, food, medical services and enrollment in school. Lukambo received surgery for the debilitating injuries that plagued her.
Floyd Preston, Lutheran Services program director, says, “They are all troopers. She is a sweet lady who has been through tremendous trials with faith and persistence to survive.”
He adds, “Christian has been the rock of the family. His award is testament to their new beginnings.”
Ndushabandi graduated from Palmer High School last year. He learned English quickly, a feat he attributes to the two years of seasonal work with Mile High Youth Corps in Colorado Springs. “I had to learn. No one knew my language.”
Nancy O. WIlson, director of the regional Mile High Youth Corps, says Ndushabandi was one of 10 youth in the state chosen for the award because of his outstanding work ethic and leadership. “He’s a remarkable young man who got a job right away with us to support his family. And he realizes the importance of education.”
The corps trains youths 17 to 24 to do conservation work. Ndushabandi built trails in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and worked on erosion control efforts in the Hayman fire and Waldo Canyon fire burn areas.
When he first did trail work, he could not imagine what it was for — in his former country, he explains, “We did not hike for fun, we hiked because we had to.”
Corps workers receive weekly living stipends and are provided with Americorp scholarships of $1,468.
Ndushabandi is the major breadwinner for his mother, two sisters, 18 and 15, and brother, 12. “I worry about it a lot,” he says.
He worked in a pizza restaurant and is working part time in the cafeteria at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School. His mother, who is taking classes to learn English, works two day a week in food services. Her disabilities prevent her from full-time employment. They plan to become U.S. citizens.
He writes almost daily, putting down his family’s memories as well as their experiences now. “I want to write my mother’s story in a book,” he says.
Ndushabandi is studying at Pikes Peak Community College and plans to attend medical school to become a surgeon. “I saw how they helped my mother. I’d like to give back and visit Africa, too and help where it is needed.”
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