The Long Journey

The Long Journey

By Emily Rust

As the first flakes of snow began to fall early in October, Ismail Ntakirutimana sat in his host family’s home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, visiting for fall break, mesmerized as the phenomenon he had only seen before in photos came to life.

In the silence of a Sunday morning, Omaha and surrounding areas slowly transformed from fall to winter, blanketed with the season’s first snowfall. The snow would be melted by the next day, returning to autumnal temperatures, but for that one day, Ntakirutimana experienced the magic of not only the first snow of the year, but his first snow ever. It was perhaps something he never expected to see in his lifetime, coming from Kigali, Rwanda.

Creighton University was also something he probably never expected to see. It had been a long journey to get here.

A freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, Ntakirutimana is enjoying his first semester at Creighton. He has found a new family with his fellow Bluejays, something that began during Welcome Week.

“(Welcome Week) was something that gave me courage,” Ntakirutimana says. “I met my guide and peer leader. They are the ones who made me feel at home. They made me feel like I am free to talk to anybody.”

It was a new feeling for Ntakirutimana, who was constantly told by his peers back home that he, a “street kid,” could never achieve anything.

Home in the slums of Kigali, Ntakirutimana and his brother, Isaac, scavenged for scrap metal, a way for the brothers, who were living at a local orphanage, to make money. Born in the shadows of the Rwandan genocide, he learned the nature of hard work from a young age. Abandoned by their father, Ntakirutimana and Isaac left their mother in search of a better education at schools in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

“When I was living in Rwanda, it was like I was separated from society,” Ntakirutimana says.

He dreamed of coming to the U.S. for many years, seeking a fresh start and new opportunities. First, he applied through a program with the Rwandan government. He didn’t get selected. Then he applied to Bridge2Rwanda, a U.S. nonprofit that assists with international scholarships. He didn’t get that either.

“The life I was living was really terrible,” Ntakirutimana says. “Education is the only way I can achieve what I need in life.”

In 2013, his break finally came in the form of sponsorship from Imana Kids, a newly formed nonprofit organization out of Council Bluffs.

“Right away, when we met Ismail, we saw his potential,” Kara Higgins, co-founder of Imana Kids, says.

For five years, Imana Kids sponsored Ntakirutimana’s schooling, allowing him to focus on passing the English exams he needed to attend a college in the United States.

Ntakirutimana applied to schools across the U.S., including Creighton, after Higgins encouraged him to look at Jesuit universities. Born into a Muslim family, Ntakirutimana was baptized as Christian in 2013, an event he says that has allowed him to forgive others and “fix my eyes on God.”

Even after receiving his acceptance letter from Creighton, Ntakirutimana’s fate as a college student in the U.S. was not sealed. His passport process was delayed, and Higgins needed to intervene with the U.S. Embassy. But finally, on July 21, a month away from the start of fall classes, he stepped foot onto U.S. soil.

He lived with Higgins’ in-laws in Kansas City, Missouri, over the summer before moving into his residence hall room on Creighton’s campus.

In his Ratio Studiorum Program (RSP) group at Creighton, a mentorship program for all freshmen, he quickly made friends.

“When I came here, it was a change for me. I didn’t know that I would be able to make friends,” Ntakirutimana says. “It’s really amazing to me how people are very nice.”

His RSP advisor, Kathy Rettig, PhD, assistant professor of English, encouraged Ntakirutimana to share about Africa, and opened the floor for discussion within the RSP group. His classmates had read about Africa and learned about a Faculty-Led Program Abroad (FLPA) course there.

“I can tell he misses Rwanda,” Rettig says. “He’s very proud of the customs. There’s a great love for his own country and people, too.”

Missing Rwanda brings mixed feelings for Ntakirutimana, for he has found a new home here.

“Sometimes people ask me if I’m missing home or family. For me, my answer would be I can miss them, but I didn’t miss them so much because I have family here,” Ntakirutimana says.

As he walked into Brandeis Dining Hall after a midterm test, Ntakirutimana loaded up his plate with a cheeseburger and pizza and met his group of friends for lunch. They talked and laughed and joked like they had known each other for ages.

“Seeing myself here is kind of a surprise. Dreams that come true,” Ntakirutimana says. “I don’t believe it. Sometimes I feel like I’m still dreaming.”

“Creighton is going to be more than a school. It is even a family to me.”