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Rwandan Couple Fled Fear and Death to New Life in Winter Haven

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by anthony, Oct 1, 2006.

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  1. anthony

    anthony Renovation Aficionado Founder

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    Ben Schadrac's earliest childhood memory is of nearly being murdered. Schadrac was 5 years old, too young to understand he was a Tutsi, a member of the minority tribe in the African nation of Rwanda, and the men torching his family's house with Ben inside were Hutus.

    For the rest of his life in Rwanda, including two other near-death episodes, Schadrac would never be allowed to forget his ethnic identity -- or that of his wife, Joy, a Hutu.

    These days, Schadrac says of himself and his family, "We are just Floridian, Polk County people." Schadrac, 49, runs a counseling service in Winter Haven, his family's home for 12 years, and Joy is the company's medical case manager and also works as a nurse. Their four children are all accomplished students.

    Schadrac, with his ready smile and contagious laugh, can seem removed from his tortured past and the legacy of Rwandan genocide that claimed scores of relatives and forced him to flee his home country. But that past clings to Ben and Joy Schadrac as persistently as Ben's African accent.

    "It's still painful, still very, very painful," Ben Schadrac said. "I think we escaped for something bigger than ourselves. There is no way I could forgive myself for being silent (about Rwanda) and not telling people."

    Most of what Americans know about Rwanda, if anything, is from the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda," a glancing primer on the 100-day period in 1994 when the nation's Hutus -- government-sanctioned militias and ordinary citizens alike -- slaughtered as many as 1.1 million Tutsis. Much of the killing was done with machetes.

    Rwanda, a small country in Central Africa, gained independence in 1962 after decades of Belgian control, and some Hutus seized on the nation's independence to take revenge against Tutsis for the group's previously favored status.

    During that period of unrest, a group of Hutus surrounded Schadrac's childhood home, uttering curses, throwing rocks and eventually setting the house ablaze. Schadrac's parents gathered their children and fled, each thinking the other had brought Ben along, and he would have died if not for a neighbor, who burst through the flames to rescue him. Tensions flared again in 1973, when Schadrac was one of a few Tutsis among 400 students at a boarding school. While other Tutsis merely received harassment, a group of students decided to kill Schadrac -- in part, he said, because he was an outspoken Christian.

    A fellow student, overcome by conscience, warned him of the plot, and Schadrac fled to the home of a teacher. The next morning, as he sat in a biology class, trucks rolled onto campus and bands of Hutu college students disembarked in search of Tutsis. He jumped out a window and ran to hide in some bushes, somehow eluding detection.

    "Being a Christian, I believe God protected me," he said.

    LIVING WITH THREATS, FEAR

    Ben and Joy met when both were in college. Marriage between Hutus and Tutsis was unusual but not forbidden, Ben said, though the more common pairing involved Hutu men and Tutsi women.

    Joy's family accepted Ben, with the exception of one sister who warned her against marrying a Tutsi. They were wed in 1985.

    Nine years later, the couple were successful professionals raising three daughters. Ben, having earned a law degree, worked as a procurement agent for the United States Agency for International Development. Joy, with a bachelor's degree in nursing, ran a private medical clinic.

    The family lived in a capacious house with a well-tended yard in Kigali, Rwanda's capital and largest city. The children had two nannies and a butler, yet the oldest daughter, Lisa, suggests a life of comfortable captivity, with the children leaving home only when taken to and from school by a driver.

    "Basically, (we) children never got out of our house because it was dangerous then," said Lisa, then 7 and now 19.

    The Hutu militia, known as the Interhamwe, had a gathering area near the home, and Lisa often saw soldiers in the streets. Her parents heard stories of militiamen throwing hand grenades into Tutsi homes and placing money rigged to explosives for Tutsi children to find.

    Joy's Hutu co-workers told her, "We're ready to kill your husband." Others would toss threatening notes into the Schadracs' yard. The family's nearest neighbor, a local government official and a Hutu extremist, frequently harassed Ben and Joy, and one night he shattered their bedroom window with a metal bar.

    Because the government condoned the Hutu militias, the Schadracs had no legal recourse. The family fled its comfortable home, moving to a rented house in a less dangerous area. In the spring of 1994, Ben decided it was time to get his family out of Rwanda.

    Telling co-workers he was taking a vacation, Schadrac drove Joy -- then eight months pregnant -- and daughters Lisa, 7; Leah, 6; and Victoria, 4, to neighboring Tanzania, where he settled them in a guest house. He returned to Rwanda, and five days later the country erupted in chaos after president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down on April 6, 1994. Though the assassins were never identified, the government immediately blamed a Tutsi rebel group, and within hours the unrestrained massacre of Tutsis began.

    Schadrac took refuge with a Tutsi friend named Charles, and as he peeked through windows he saw gun-wielding soldiers moving methodically through the neighborhood. He heard gunfire and the screams of victims.

    "I said, `Look, they are killing people, I can hear it, and they'll come for us, too,' " Schadrac recalled. "I told them, `If I have to die, let me die running, not staying in the house.' "

    He fled to a Catholic school, only to find more than 2,000 other Rwandans already there, huddled on a football field. Many bore the wounds of machete attacks. Only United Nations officials and foreigners designated for evacuation were allowed inside the school.

    On the second day, Schadrac benefited from a life-saving mistake when a Belgian man confused him with someone else and he was brought inside the school. He began pleading with a United Nations official to include him among the evacuees, and after several refusals the official gave in.

    Schadrac later found out soldiers killed virtually all of the Tutsis at the school the day after he left. His friend, Charles, and his wife and children were murdered in their home.

    When Ben reached Joy and the girls in Tanzania, his wife had given birth alone amid primitive conditions, and the baby was in the hospital. Samuel died two days later, and Ben considers him a victim of the Rwandan genocide.

    In time, Schadrac learned most of his extended family -- more than 100 altogether -- had died in the purge, including his parents and a brother and a sister.

    The Schadrac family reached a refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya, and after several months, they were offered exile in Canada, Australia or the United States. They chose the latter, and Ben soon received a letter of sponsorship from August Bernthal, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in an unfamiliar place -- Winter Haven, Florida.

    Schadrac recalled his reaction: "Thank you, Lord, whoever this man is. Thank you."

    REFUGE IN WINTER HAVEN

    Grace Lutheran gave the Schadracs housing, food and clothes and enrolled the children in its school. The church sponsored dozens of foreign refugees during the late Bernthal's tenure, mostly from Vietnam or Eastern Europe, said Laurie Tremblay, a member of the resettlement committee.

    The Schadrac girls picked up English quickly and soon thrived in school. The transition was much more difficult for their parents, who each carried a psychological burden. Ben was consumed by survivor's guilt, wondering why he lived when so many others died (estimates range from 800,000 to 1.1 million).

    "The first three years here, I was not able to put a smile on my face," said Schadrac, a man of moderate height with a wide forehead and a bald pate.

    Joy, as a Hutu, coped with a different guilt.

    "Even now I feel ashamed to say I belong to that side," she said. "If they see you as a Hutu, you are a bad person. I don't know that I can ever heal from that."

    Though Ben's faith in God was shaken, he clung to it. He said he and Joy served as each other's counselors.

    "We cried together and prayed together and just tried to understand each other," he said, "and we kind of healed each other."

    Emotionally raw and struggling with a new language and culture, Ben and Joy also were humbled by their new circumstances -educated professionals suddenly forced to start anew, their college degrees no longer valuable.

    Ben gained admission to Warner Southern College in Lake Wales, despite his limited English, and earned a bachelor's degree in organizational management while working for the Polk County Health Department. Joy found work as a nursing assistant at Winter Haven Hospital and is preparing to take an exam for her registered nurse's license.

    Ben, who added a master's degree from Webster University, now heads Luster All Community Care, which contracts with Youth and Family Alternatives to counsel at-risk students and to teach HIV prevention.

    The Schadracs' three daughters, who speak unaccented English, all excelled at Grace Lutheran School in academics, music and sports. Leah is now 18 and Victoria 16. A son, Daniel, 12, was born in Winter Haven and is a sixth-grader at the school.

    The Schadracs became American citizens in 2000, and Ben said he feels a pride and attachment to his adopted country he never knew as a Tutsi in Rwanda. Though America drew criticism for failing to intervene amid the Rwandan genocide, Schadrac puts more blame on the United Nations, which withdrew a small peacekeeping force shortly after the genocide began.

    HOPING TO HELP RWANDANS

    Ben Schadrac has made emotional progress, yet he still finds it difficult to give himself over to leisure activities. Rather than spending $8 on a movie, he would rather send the money to survivors in Rwanda who need it. He created an organization that directs donations from himself and others to a "family" of some 20 Rwandan widows and children, including a nephew.

    "In Rwanda today, they experience some kind of mental illnesses, a severe type of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) that isn't known anywhere else," Schadrac said. "You find mothers who just run crazy in the street because they killed all their children in their sight and raped them and let them go. There are fathers whose families were killed, and they're not able to smile."

    Schadrac said his younger brother, Jonathan, one of his only surviving relatives, was so traumatized he is unable to function. Jonathan has declined his brother's pleas to come to America.

    Schadrac traveled to Rwanda for a week in 2004, visiting widows and orphans of some of his friends, and he hopes to return next year to give a proper burial to his parents, whose remains his brother found.

    Lisa Schadrac, who earned an associate's degree before her graduation from Polk's Collegiate High School, plans to study international relations at the University of South Florida. She aspires to become an ambassador or create an organization to support Rwanda's needy.

    "When we were little kids, we really didn't want to hear (about Rwanda), but eventually we got around to it and he taught us about it and made sure we never forget who we are," Lisa said.

    Whereas Ben said some Rwandan couples survived 1994 only to have the trauma destroy their marriages, the Schadracs offer a symbol of unity between a man and a woman born to tribes riven by hatred.

    "Every year on their anniversary, they act like they just got married," Lisa said. "It's nice. It used to embarrass me, but as I got older I realized you don't see a lot of parents like that any more."

    "I see it as a tool -- our story as a marriage that is a happy marriage," Ben Schadrac said. "We'll go out and show people this thing (in Rwanda) was nothing, just a political mess to commit atrocities without any reason."

    Source: The Ledger
     
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