Bridging the distance from Rwanda to Penn
College freshman Remy Manzi sees education as a way to overcome adversity
February 13, 2013, 7:08 pm·
Halie Craig | DP
The rain was pounding hard on Remy Manzi’s forehead as he held tight to his mother’s hand, stepping over bodies that lay forgotten alongside the road leading to his home in Kabgayi, Rwanda.
Remy, a 4-year-old boy at the time, was fleeing for his life.
With a bag full of plates slung across his shoulders and his older brother trailing closely behind, Remy did the only thing that his gut told him to do — he ran.
It was 1994, and the Rwandan genocide was just starting. Remy’s mother had received word from a neighbor that a raid was going to be taking place in their village the next morning, and she made the decision to take her two sons and find shelter at a Catholic refugee camp.
Nearly two decades after he knew little but loss and brutality, Remy now finds himself in a place that, for years, was not even remotely on his radar: Penn.
“All my life, I’ve escaped through education,” Remy, now a College freshman, says as he thinks about everything he went through before arriving on campus in July, unable to hold back a smile as he starts talking about Penn. “Education above all has taught me how to forgive. If we can forgive these atrocities and come back together with everybody we knew and loved before this all happened, then maybe we can bring back our happiness. Maybe we can put our lives back together.”
It was early one morning in 1994 as Remy awoke abruptly to shouting voices in the refugee camp where he and his family were staying.
The Hutu-led Interahamwe militia — the primary aggressors during the genocide — had arrived to round up the Tutsi refugees.
Clubs and machetes in hand, the Hutus began packing families into trucks by the hundreds, preparing to drive off and kill them near the Nyabarongo River as part of their “ethnic cleansing” of the Tutsi population.
Remy’s mother, Jeanne D’arc Kantengwa, held her sons tight as they sat waiting in line, knowing that they had no more than a few minutes left together.
The 4-year-old boy looked on as the Hutus — many of whom had been his family’s friends and neighbors in Kabgayi for years — loaded his aunt and 8-month-old cousin onto the truck, right before his eyes.
He would never hear from either of them again.
Suddenly, just as Remy was next in line, the militia called off the raid, announcing that the trucks were so full of bodies that they had no more room to transport anyone else.
“We’ll be back,” Remy remembers them saying.
They never came back.
It was near the beginning of July 2012, and Remy found himself boarding a Delta Air Lines flight from Africa to Atlanta, Ga.
It was his first time on a plane — he jokes that he mistakenly tried to sit in first class — and he was on his way to the United States.
“I was so excited, like I’d never felt before in my life,” he says. “For all 16 hours on that plane, I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Keith and Teresa Devine, Remy’s sponsor family in the country, broke down when he landed in Atlanta.
“When you fall in love with someone like Remy, you don’t see it as a sacrifice to help him along in his journey,” Teresa said. “We truly believe he’s destined to do something special in Rwanda.”
Remy’s first few weeks with the Devines in their Atlanta home did not come without a steep learning curve.
One day, Teresa walked in on Remy trying to use an air freshener bottle as deodorant. Another time, Keith found him squirting soap onto his toast, thinking it was butter.
Teresa and Keith, who first met Remy in 2009 on a trip to Africa and later worked with him through an international outreach program called Bridge2Rwanda, said they would often have three-hour “cram sessions” with Remy, during which they would teach him basic things about life in the country.
After a few weeks with the Devines, Remy made his second trip to another U.S. city — this time, to Philadelphia.
Remy’s journey to Penn — and to the country, for that matter — is nothing short of miraculous, said Elisabeth O’Connell, the admissions officer who first read his application.
“Here’s a young man who’s gone through such unimaginable things in his life, and he comes to Penn with such an open, positive and curious mind,” O’Connell said. “He really underscores what optimism is all about — optimism in your fellow human beings, optimism in Penn, optimism in the world.”
In many ways, Remy is exactly like a typical undergraduate on campus today.
Most mornings, he heads to the gym before classes to work out.
During the evenings, he can usually be found eating dinner with a group of friends at Hill College House. Last year, Remy took the concept of the “freshman 15” to a whole new level, gaining 40 pounds during his first semester at Penn.
In many ways, however, Remy isn’t typical at all.
Every day, Remy carries with him the burden of having lost about 100 family members during a genocide that claimed the lives of nearly a million.
Although his friends call him one of the happiest people they’ve ever met, remembering life in 1994 is sometimes too much for even Remy to handle.
“What made my neighbors kill my aunts, my uncles, my family — I don’t think I’ll ever understand why a person would do that,” he says, bowing his head down as he thinks back to his relatives.
Remy describes the conditions of the refugee camp where he stayed in 1994 as “horrific.”
As the rains poured down around him, he recalls, young children were dying left and right of malaria and malnutrition. Even though he and his brother came down with serious diarrhea at times, his mother pleaded with them not to used the communal bathroom stalls in the camp, fearful of the diseases they might contract.
Occasionally, his mother — who previously worked as a subsistence farmer — would venture outside of the camp to gather food and water for her two sons. One time, Remy says, she and a small group were brought back by the Interahamwe at knifepoint.
The militia slaughtered about 15 in the group, telling Remy’s mother to go back and share with the rest of the camp what she had seen.
“A huge crisis was the number of orphans around — either the parents had abandoned their children, or they had died,” Remy says.
One day, Remy looked at his mother and asked her if she was considering leaving him and his brother, Patrick, in order to escape.
Her answer was simple.
“I will never leave you.”
“I’ll never forget that moment,” Remy says. “The fact that she stayed with us, that she protected us, made a huge difference. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her.”
Looking back, Remy says his greatest fear throughout the genocide was never death. Instead, he feared one day finding himself separated from his mother and brother.
“It’s this love, this sense of community that Rwandans have, that is so hard to break,” he says. “That’s what they were trying to break, and I don’t think they ever succeeded.”
Although Remy is thousands of miles away from his mother, his brother and his neighbors in Rwanda today, he feels much of a similar sense of community at Penn.
Remy lives in Riepe College House as part of the close-knit Integrated Studies Program. He is also a Penn World Scholar — a program that covers his full tuition — and a Benjamin Franklin Scholar.
When Remy first arrived on campus in July for a pre-freshman program, he felt an instant connection to Penn.
From teaching his friends Rwandan dance moves to affectionately calling his roommate “Muzungu” — a slang phrase meaning “white person” — many of his peers say they’ve felt a similar connection to Remy.
“He’s always smiling, and you can hear his laughter throughout the Quad all the time,” said College freshman Alejandro Utria, one of Remy’s close friends. “He had to grow up really fast, and I think his story goes to show that, no matter what happens in life, you can go on with a smile.”
What Remy is most proud of at Penn, though, is his work with a new organization called Uplift Rwanda.
Founded by Remy and a close friend from Rwanda who currently attends Northwestern University, the organization aims to provide connections to Penn students for Rwandan youth. Ultimately, he’s hoping that the group will serve as a vehicle to provide internship opportunities to high school graduates in Rwanda.
While Uplift Rwanda is still in its early stages, Remy will be traveling back home this summer to get the organization going. Among other things, he’ll be leading a number of workshops for Rwandan students that will focus on education.
“He really wants to make a difference in Rwanda. To see someone strive as he has to make things better is really a model to look at,” said College freshman Donald Davis, Remy’s roommate. “What he’s doing is remarkable.”
The story of how coming to Penn was even a possibility for Remy, though, may be even more remarkable.
After 1994, Remy, Patrick and their mother were left with very little.
Their grass-thatched house — called a “nyakatsi” in Rwanda — had been completely destroyed during the genocide. His mother was especially affected by everything that had happened, having lost countless siblings and friends with whom she had been close.
Remy continued living with his family until he was 9 years old. Then, the door to his education was pulled wide open when he received an offer to study for free at the new Sonrise School — a boarding institution for Rwandan youth started by an Anglican bishop, John Rucyahana.
Although the school was located in the northern province of Rwanda, far from where Remy had grown up in the south, he jumped at the opportunity to get an education.
From the time he started at Sonrise, Remy was in charge of a group of about 16 children at the school, most of whom were younger than 5. Many of them had lost their parents during the genocide, and Remy felt a responsibility to make their lives feel as normal as possible.
“In many ways, I was their father,” he says. “Watching them grow up over the years, seeing some of them apply to college now, it’s been amazing.”
Over the years, Remy consistently found himself climbing up the ranks of the top-performing students at Sonrise.
But then, when he was 15 years old, he received news that would quickly test his resolve.
His father, he learned, had been murdered by his uncle over a work dispute.
Visiting his uncle in jail soon after the murder, Remy looked into his eyes and delivered a message that he says will always stick with him.
“I forgive you, but right now I’m an orphan,” he said to his uncle. “I give you responsibility now to become my father.”
Remy’s uncle remains in jail today.
Although Remy was never especially close with his father, Harelimana Gasore Jacques — who left his mother while she was pregnant — he says that his father instilled within him the importance of education.
“I’d show my father that I was top five in the class, and that wasn’t good enough for him,” he says. “Something he taught me was a sense of never being complacent, to always try harder. I wish he could see where I am today.”
It was this resolve to perform well in school that ultimately led Remy to apply to Penn. He had first heard of the University after reading an article about College junior Dau Jok, a member of Penn’s basketball team from Southern Sudan who had traveled to Rwanda on a service project.
When O’Connell informed him of his acceptance last year, he says he was happier than he can ever remember being.
“The night before I left for the U.S., more than 100 people came and celebrated — families reunited, neighbors who’d grown apart came back together,” he says. “It was about a lot more than just me coming to Penn. They knew where I came from, where we’d all come from.”
It’s a Sunday morning on campus, and Remy is heading down Locust Walk on his way back to his room in Riepe.
Even through spending just a few minutes with the College freshman, it’s clear by the number of people who approach him that he’s already made a name for himself on campus.
“There’s never a day where he’s not smiling constantly or cracking jokes or saying hello to people like he hasn’t seen them in years,” said College freshman Derek Sexton, another close friend of Remy’s. “He has a great spirit.”
For now, Remy — who says the Office of Admissions has told him that he is the first student from Rwanda in the University’s history — is looking to use that spirit to promote social change back home.
His long-term goal, he says, is to get involved in public service in Rwanda, as well as to expand the reach of Uplift Rwanda throughout the country.
Ultimately, he sees himself running for president of Rwanda one day.
It’s a lofty goal, but his friends say if there’s anybody who can do it, it’s Remy.
“I’ve always felt a need to make the most of the education I attain, and that’s exactly what I’m doing today,” he says. “I can’t wait to see where Penn will take me next.”