The wait was torture. Six months of back-and-forth, missing documents, interviews, and paperwork.
Finally, Ismail Ntakirutimana had a passport in his hands. Now all he needed was a student visa to the United States.
But on July 10, the day he was supposed to have an interview with staff at the U.S. Embassy, he was turned away. “You aren’t in the system,” they told him. His appointment had vanished.
“I felt like it was the end,” Ismail says. “When they told me that, I was really discouraged.”
With a heavy heart, he walked to the bus stop to catch a ride back to the apartment he shared with several other former street kids and orphans from the slums of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Regardless of the application’s outcome, Ismail’s academic record is already a miracle. His impoverished upbringing, however, remains commonplace for youths growing up in the aftermath of the country’s 1994 genocide.
His identity card says he’s 20 years old, but his actual age remains a mystery. Ismail’s father abandoned him and two younger siblings when Ismail was only 5 years old. His mother eventually gave Ismail and younger brother Isaac to a neighborhood orphanage, hoping to spare them from starvation.
If he received the student visa, Ismail would be able to continue his studies at Creighton University on a scholarship. “By the grace of God,” Ismail says he received conditional admission to half a dozen American universities. Of the possible schools, only Creighton was located in the Midwest, close to the adoptive family that had been sponsoring him for the past five years.
Without the visa, he wouldn’t be attending any university in the U.S. He prayed for God’s mercy. But in this imperfect world of men, Ismail knew the student visa was not guaranteed.
He heard rumors that the U.S. had become tight-fisted with foreign-student visas, and he was all too familiar with how his story attracted scornful looks from neighbors in the slums of Kigali’s Kimisagara district.
Omaha, Nebraska—more than 8,000 miles away—seemed impossibly exotic from the tropical highlands of Rwanda. Ismail could imagine how embassy staff might view his case: a street kid with dreams bigger than his means.
He had never seen snow or traveled on an airplane, let alone left the country. Nevertheless, ever since his primary school days, Ismail had prayed for the opportunity to study overseas. Even when he was starving on the streets of Kimisagara.
The realization of that dream felt so close, yet so far. “Maybe it was just a fantasy after all,” he thought to himself, discouraged.
The bus continued onward. Ismail returned his attention to prayer.
“And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.”
Ismail did not witness the Interahamwe militia shouting “Hutu Power!” as they rounded up his mother’s family for extermination. He did not see relatives butchered by neighbors, indoctrinated by a caste-like system of tribal identification that lingered from the days of Belgium’s colonial rule.
Blood stained the streets, and the air stunk of rotting human flesh.
The genocide in Rwanda lasted approximately 100 days, and the international community turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s economy came to a standstill amid the government-sponsored killing spree to purge the nation’s Tutsi minority population. By some accounts, nearly 1 million Tutsi died in the genocide—roughly 18 percent of the total population in the small, landlocked, eastern Central African country.
Ismail was not yet born when his homeland turned into hell on earth. But like so many young Rwandans, he would grow up under the crushing weight of trauma so heavy that his mother still struggles to get out of bed each April (the month when the 1994 genocide started).
“She doesn’t talk, she doesn’t eat, and she is always crying,” Ismail says of his mother’s recurring post-traumatic episodes.
Among those murdered in the genocide was her first husband. The Interahamwe—men and boys, civilians with machetes, rifles, grenades, and deep hatred for Tutsi—had a list of all the people with Tutsi identity. It was a death list. Ismail says the name of his mother’s first husband was at the top of the document.
From the side of the road, his mother saw her husband’s body piled in the back of a truck filled with corpses. “She only told us that she saw him,” Ismail says. “During the 1994 genocide, it was not easy to take someone who was dead to bury them or to have a funeral.” She saw his feet had been cut off, and other body parts were mutilated. Burns covered his body. She could assume his fate. “The bodies were put in trucks so they could throw them in the river,” Ismail says.
She could not mourn. She escaped on foot, fleeing with their three children (Ismail’s half-siblings, with whom he does not have a relationship), as she had just enough money to bribe her way into Zaire, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Horrific scenes repeated across the country. Elderly were slaughtered alongside adults and children. Infants were ripped from mothers’ arms and left for wild animals to devour. Men infected with HIV raped Tutsi women and girls. Hutu sympathizers and intertribal spouses met similar fates. Some were given the opportunity to pay for a swift death by gunfire rather than machete. But not all of the murderers would take payment, especially in the early days of the genocide.
“Weed out the cockroaches,” urged the newspapers and radio stations. “Get rid of the cockroaches!” jeered the Interahamwe, hunting their countrymen in public. Terrified Tutsi refugee families gathered in stadiums and churches for safety. Interahamwe attacked them in confinement. They tossed grenades into the stadiums and bulldozed the churches filled with innocent people, massacring the huddled masses.
The bloodshed made no sense. Hutu and Tutsi people speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. They have intermarried for generations. They were neighbors and classmates. There were stereotypes that supposedly differentiated the groups: Hutus had wider noses, Tutsis were taller; Hutus were the working class, Tutsis were the royalty complicit in the old colonial system. But the reality wasn’t so simple.
Today, Rwanda is a model society in many respects. The economy is booming. International investment is pouring in. Kigali streets are clean and orderly. Meanwhile, President Paul Kagame has remained in power since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (a militia consisting of exiled Tutsi and sympathetic Hutu) overturned the extremist Hutu government in 1994.
The nation’s future appears bright, and discussing Hutu or Tutsi tribal identity has become taboo. Tribal divisions once enshrined in identification cards—dating back to the colonial era—have been wiped clean from public discourse.
“You can’t say Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda at this time,” Ismail says. “At the moment, it is like it is illegal, because they want us to see ourselves as Rwandans in one shape. What we are taught is this: We are all Rwandans. No one has to belong to one of these [tribal] groups.”
Ismail only knows of his parent’s tribal affiliation from the few times his mother spoke about the dark days that preceded his birth.
After the genocide, she returned to Rwanda from Congo. She began living with another as man and wife in Kigali. “She was Tutsi, and my father was a Hutu,” Ismail says. “After meeting him, she thought he was going to change her life.”
But her hopes never came to fruition. “Instead her life became worse, and that increased her trauma,” Ismail says.
“Call me Ishmael.”
(Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 1851)
In accordance with Rwandan custom, Ismail received his two names from his parents. One of his names, Ntakirutimana, means “nothing is greater than God” in Kinyarwanda. Traditionally, Rwandan families do not share surnames or pass them from parent to child. The names are meant to be unique.
His other given name translates from Arabic to “God will listen.” The choice indicates religious affiliation. His parents were Muslim, so Ismail received the Muslim spelling of “Ishmael.” In both Christian and Muslim accounts of Genesis, Ishmael is the firstborn son of Abraham and the ancestor of Muslim people. Ishmael is Abraham’s son by his wife’s servant in the Bible; the “wife’s servant” is Abraham’s second wife in the Quran.
Although the Constitution of Rwanda explicitly defines marriage as monogamous, Ismail says having multiple wives is not unusual among the minority Muslim population of the predominantly Roman-Catholic nation.
Ismail was the first son to his father’s third “wife.” They never officially married. Parents are supposed to list their offspring on their own identity cards, but Ismail’s father did not claim them.
With money from selling her previous husband’s home, Ismail’s father bought his third wife’s current mud hovel—located a 20-minute hike up a steep hillside on a treacherous path of broken cement and sandbags for stairs—overlooking the crowded Kimisagara slum that stretches across the valley. There was no running water. They had to haul jugs of potable water for cooking and cleaning. In the rainy season, the steep path became a torrential waterfall preventing access up or down.
Ismail remembers his father leaving the family’s hillside home in 2002, but he returned after a while. “The oldest one of my father’s wives really hated us and didn’t want us to stay with him,” Ismail says. “I think she could be the one to tell him that he doesn’t need to come home.”
His father left again in 2003 and never came back. That was the end of their family unit. Financial support disappeared with the father figure. Then came starvation. Meals were a luxury. Sugar cane was the only food in the house for a time, and there were days when they didn’t have that, either.
Paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles turned their backs to the plight of the third wife. “Our dad’s family rejected us,” Ismail says. “They didn’t want us. Since then, I have carried a big burden in my heart. I was worried about my mother and younger siblings. This made me want to work harder so I can bring a big change in their lives.”
He knew academic success would be his path to change. But his mother could not afford fees for the local primary schools. Fortunately, a school in the area waived tuition for Ismail and his siblings. Walking several kilometers there and back on an empty stomach was still difficult, though.
“Most of the time, I had to go to classes without taking any food,” Ismail says. “Going to school was somehow easier, but turning back was really hard. Sometimes I had to sit on the street and wait until I regained the energy so that I could move on.”
After classes or during holidays, Ismail and Isaac made extra money for food; they gathered scrap metal or crafted little metal toys from fence wires. Life on the streets could be dangerous. Police would capture street kids and put them in jail. Some of their friends carried razorblades to slash the officers in order to escape.
“When I was picking scrap metals, I had to communicate with my friends who were in the streets to give them what I had collected instead of going to the place,” Ismail says. “My friends on the streets were good at escaping the police. Then they would get the money and give me some.”
Adults in the neighborhood called him a “street kid” and “illegitimate.” The words stung his heart. Although Ismail slept at his mother’s home, he felt like one of the street kids. “I was on the streets most of the time, and many of my friends were street kids,” he says. “That’s why I felt rejected from society. I didn’t love the other kids from better families. I felt different, like the street kids were the only ones I could associate with.”
His mother converted to Christianity in 2008. Ismail and his siblings eventually followed her lead. Meanwhile, a makeshift orphanage sprang up on the hillside next to his mother’s home. The owner, Antoine, seized part of the family’s small plot of land for his orphanage. He also started offering Ismail and his family food. Without Antoine’s handouts, Ismail suspects they might have died.
When the time came to take the national high school entry exam, Ismail received one of the region’s top scores. It was news in the community, and the achievement brought him into the spotlight for ridicule. His academic future was in limbo without enough money to even pay for the daily bus fare to attend high school, never mind the tuition fees.
“Everyone knew that I passed the national exam,” Ismail says. “People were making fun of me, saying I was a street kid from a really poor family, that I passed the national exams at the highest grade but I’m not going to high school. There were some adults who were being mean, because they had seen how we were living.”
Then, Ismail says, Antoine would only give them more food if they lived at the orphanage. He would also cover Ismail’s expenses associated with attending one of Rwanda’s top high schools, St. Andre College. Ismail couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He moved from his mother’s mud home into Antoine’s next-door orphanage with Isaac. The small building housed anywhere from 60 to 100 kids (depending on the day) in roughly a dozen cramped, cage-like rooms.
He felt like an imposter. Ismail was a day-student at St. Andre because the boarding option was too expensive. When other students talked about their families, Ismail kept silent. He felt out of place at every turn, so he endured abuse from others without protest. Loneliness crept into his heart.
“At St. Andre, I had a classmate that made fun of my name saying I am the son of a slave woman and saying that I’m an illegitimate kid,” Ismail says, comparing the at-school insult to the hurtful words hurled by adults in Kimisagara. “He [the classmate] didn’t know where I was from, but calling me that made me uncomfortable. The school was attended by many rich students from rich families, and this made me feel even more isolated.” He didn’t protest. He didn’t want to make a scene.
In those days, life at the orphanage was better than his mother’s home. At least there was food. But there’s no such thing as free lunch, Ismail learned. Antoine had the children make mud bricks, gather water, care for his cow, dispose of manure, and do other labor-intensive chores. When they misbehaved, Antoine would beat them or lock them in the dark without meals.
Girls at the orphanage suffered worst of all, though Ismail says he did not learn of their trauma until the end of his time lodging there. Antoine had a prostitution ring on the side. He made some girls go home with men to perform sex acts.
There were times when Ismail considered running away from Rwanda to join one of the militias in the forests of Congo. Most of the time, though, he dreamed of enrolling at a foreign university, somewhere far from his Kimisagara slum and the troubles of daily life.
Ismail turned back to his school books, and he prayed.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda reminded the world of the country’s genocide. Nominated for an Academy Award, it tells the heroic story of the manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines giving shelter to more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees in Kigali. The hotel manager responsible was Hutu (the son of a Tutsi woman) and married a Tutsi woman.
A few years after the film’s theatrical release, Kara and Ryan Higgins were watching a DVD rental of the movie at their home in the suburbs of Kansas City. The experience set in motion a series of life-changing events for the married couple.
“Initially, I was shocked that I didn’t know more about the genocide because I can remember seeing it on the news,” Kara says. “Later in the same week we watched the movie, the adoption agency we were in contact with told us about a new pilot program for adoption from Rwanda. We thought this must be a right fit, our kids must be in Rwanda.”
“At the time, I didn’t think of it as the turning point for our family, but it definitely was,” Ryan adds.
Adoption was an ongoing discussion for the Higginses since before they had married. By the time they watched Hotel Rwanda in 2009, they had two biological children—6-year-old Molly and 4-year-old Blake—but complications during both pregnancies meant they couldn’t have more biological kids.
Watching the movie, they realized a humanitarian crisis was looming over a new generation of Rwandan youth. The genocide had orphaned tens of thousands of children. Many were born to victims of rape during the ethnic cleansing. Some had watched the murder of their parents. Others—Hutu and Tutsi alike—were simply falling through the cracks of an overburdened child welfare system.
The Higginses added their names to the waiting list for adopting Rwandan orphans as part of the new pilot program. After months of waiting, nuns with the Sisters of Charity at the Home of Hope Orphanage paired the couple with Etienne and Ezekiel. The nuns estimated Etienne was close to 3 years old and Ezekiel was about 18 months old.
Kara and Ryan didn’t hesitate. They jumped at the opportunity to complete their dream family. Flying to Rwanda for the first time, they arrived and fell in love with the country. The boys’ adjustment to the foreign, white American family was difficult, Kara admits, but worth the struggle.
“They were No. 7 and No. 8 to be adopted out of Rwanda,” Kara says. “The government closed international adoptions in 2012, so it’s a pretty small community in the U.S. of Rwandan-American adopted kids.”
Just before adopting the boys, the Higginses relocated to Council Bluffs to be closer to Kara’s family in Omaha. Ryan was teaching engineering at Abraham Lincoln High School. Kara was a midwife and nurse practitioner at OneWorld Community Health Center in South Omaha.
In the year that Rwanda closed foreign adoptions, destiny came calling again.
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”
Visiting Orphans, a faith-oriented nonprofit out of Tennessee, wanted to know if the Higginses would lead a summer 2013 trip to volunteer at an orphanage in Kigali. The organization had learned of the Higgins family through Kara’s blog, Room4More, which had attracted a large following in the adoption community.
Eager to give more to the country that had completed their family, Kara and Ryan answered, “Yes.” But Kara gave one condition: “We wanted to go to the place with the greatest need.” The Visiting Orphans coordinator knew of just the place, a difficult-to-access orphanage in the slums of Kimisagara in Kigali.
The Higginses’ daughter, Kara’s parents, an aunt from Omaha, friends of the family, and Kara’s midwife mentor (Manya Schmidt) joined Kara and Ryan’s first organized group to Rwanda.
They had plans for a grand vacation bible school week, but the number of children they found crowded into Antoine’s dilapidated orphanage overwhelmed their plans. Most of the kids weren’t even going to school. Ismail was one of the few children even interested in studying.
“That very first day, I knew that this is going to change the rest of our lives,” Kara says. She started collecting profiles of the kids with the help of a translator. They asked each child what they wanted to do when they grew up. Very few had answers. The struggle of living day-to-day fully occupied their minds.
One of the older boys was Ferdinand. With broad strong shoulders, Ferdinand was one of the bigger kids. He was an orphan of the 1994 genocide. As an infant, his sister tossed him in a river to save him from killers. Then she jumped after him. She saved him, and she took care of him for several years—until she died of HIV-related illness, a result of being raped.
When he was living on the streets, Ferdinand was one of those street kids carrying razor blades to escape police. He was one of those street kids tossed into jail. Eventually, he ended up under Antoine’s roof in Kimisagara.
The orphanage, high on the hillside, was packed with children. Sewage seeped into where the kids played, and many suffered from serious health problems. Overwhelmed by the dire circumstances of the orphanage’s living conditions, the Higgins family and their group of foreign volunteers didn’t notice anything amiss, at least not yet. Kara says they were naive.
“On the first day, we learned a phrase that means, ‘See you tomorrow.’” The kids didn’t believe us that we would come back a second day,” Ryan says. They had seen foreign aid groups before, but none returned for a second day. The kids were overjoyed when the muzungu (slang for “white people” in Kinyarwanda) actually came back to the mud-walled and mud-floored orphanage the following day.
Their final day was a tear-jerker. “We can’t come back tomorrow, but we will see you again,” the Americans told the kids. “That last day was gut-wrenching. I remember getting on the bus and just sobbing,” Ryan says. Kara had never seen him cry like that.
Discussions on how to help the kids began as soon as the volunteers returned to their hotel in Kigali, before they had even flown home. Back in the U.S., the Higginses and the rest of their team began researching how to start a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to the desperate children trapped in Antoine’s orphanage.
By July 2013, about a month after returning home, they had formalized a nonprofit called Imana Kids, with headquarters at the Higginses’ dining room table. The first part of the name, Imana, translates to “of God” in Kinyarwanda. Their mission: “Love one child, change the world,” with a focus on building sustainable person-to-person relationships.
The first trip under the new nonprofit came in September. Ryan and Kara flew back to hire an in-country director, open a foreign Rwandan bank account, and find boarding schools for all the children. Most schools, however, declined to take “street kids” because of the potential liability.
Before they could do anything more, Imana Kids needed a dependable translator. Kara and Ryan contacted the Rwandan husband-wife pastoring duo who had helped with translation during the previous Visiting Orphans trip. But they weren’t available on such short notice. Jane, the wife of Pastor Peter, suggested her brother—a born-again Christian named James Odongo. James would eventually become the team’s in-country director (also accountant, chaperone, father figure, mentor, disciplinarian, pastor, and friend to the kids).
James grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp. A Hutu-led revolution against Belgian colonialism overturned Rwanda’s monarchy and dispossessed the Tutsi ruling elite during the early 1960s. As persecution of Tutsis became a recurring threat in Rwanda, members of the minority group fled to neighboring countries.
Abandoned by his father, James led a life of vice and adventure before devoting his life to the gospel. He served in Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, pursued Hutu militias into Congo, and occupied high-ranking military positions with regional revolutionary armies. He even led a gang of robbers before finding redemption through Jesus Christ.
He learned to speak English from the Lord. James says he never studied it, but could one day make sense of the foreign tongue like the Book of Acts (where the Holy Spirit descended to earth in flames, granting Jesus’ disciples the ability to speak in foreign unfamiliar languages).
Ryan returned over Christmas. He and James got the kids from the Kimisagara orphanage ready with assorted school supplies and mattresses for boarding school rooms. During the visit, Ryan discovered that the secondary school had unexpectedly blocked the orphans from enrollment. So, they had to find a replacement school.
The orphanage’s academic all-star, Ismail, soon joined the rest of the older kids for a fresh start at the high school known as Lyceé de Kicukiro Apade. American sponsors began stepping up to cover associated fees and expenses. Ryan’s parents became Ismail’s sponsor. Kara and Ryan sponsored another boy named Ananias (who they later flew to Omaha for surgery to correct the uneven length of his legs).
Kara and Ryan began alternating their trips to Kigali. In January 2014, two weeks after Ryan’s trip to finalize new school logistics, Kara and another Imana Kids board member flew back to tie up loose ends.
They were worried about the younger kids trapped in the orphanage, not yet able to attend boarding school. But it was also on this trip when one of the older girls revealed a darker depravity of the Kimisagara orphanage. Antoine was forcing the older girls into prostitution.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
(1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
“She told us in passing, ‘Now that I’m at school, I don’t have to do anything for a meal,’” Kara says. James began to probe with questions. “What do you mean?” She explained, “Well, I used to have to work for Antoine.” “What do you mean by work?” James continued. “I used to have sex, and then I would be able to get deodorant and things like that.”
The career midwife has seen many abused women in clinics. But she had never heard anything like this. “She was just sharing the facts like she was talking about the weather,” Kara says of the candid teenage girl.
Kara began reaching out to local representatives of International Justice Mission and the Rwandan government. “The law in Rwanda is that you need physical evidence of sexual assault crimes, and that was difficult for the girls who were underage,” Kara says. Four of the girls were willing to wear hidden cameras.
But the Imana Kids leadership didn’t feel comfortable asking the girls to let themselves be abused. Before catching her flight home, James hired nannies to look after the younger kids. Kara gave stern instructions to the nannies and the older boys that they should protect the girls.
Meanwhile, Antoine was out recruiting new orphans for the spaces vacated by the children Imana Kids placed in boarding schools. The older orphans were safe in their boarding schools, and Kara only had to worry about them during school holidays or sick days when they were out of their school’s dorms.
Back in the U.S., Kara persistently contacted officials who could close the orphanage. “We were calling or emailing weekly, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” she says.
The first Imana Kids group trip was part volunteering, part Mission: Impossible. In July 2014, Kara and Ryan led a dozen board members, sponsors, and participants from the prior Visiting Orphans trip that the Higginses had led.
“We had to tell that team what was going on in advance,” Kara says. “The environment was really tense. Antoine had put padlocks on the door, and he had a notification system where they rang a cowbell when cars arrived at the base of the hill. But Antoine still wanted us coming in because he wanted food for the kids, and thought he could get money from us. He didn’t want to lose the relationship with us.”
In between time spent at the Kimisagara orphanage with children, Kara was trying to meet with government officials and aid groups.
One night early in the visit, several Imana Kids board members organized a secret rescue mission to meet four older girls at a Kimisagara gas station. The girls were in beautician trade school and didn’t have a dorm like the boarding school students. Vulnerable and scared, they wanted out. James arranged for a safe house with friends in another neighborhood.
The day before leaving Rwanda, Imana Kids rented a soccer field in the valley below the hillside to avoid the mounting tension and fear that pervaded the orphanage. Kids ran and frolicked away from Antoine’s surveillance.
Their group came back to say goodbyes the following day. When Antoine was out, Ferdinand surprised Kara by drawing the deadbolt on the door of the orphanage. He cornered her while other boys kept lookout. They needed privacy to discuss threats facing other girls. He also worried what would happen to everyone if the orphanage was successfully closed. Where would they go?
With their departing flight a few hours away, crying children followed the foreigners down the hillside to their rental bus. Just then, a fleet of expensive cars—shiny black BMWs and other luxury vehicles unusual for Kimisagara—pulled to the side of the road.
“It was like a movie,” Kara says. “The minister of the Office for Vulnerable Children, who I had been emailing every week since the previous winter—until I gave up in April—walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you email@example.com? I just got your emails.’”
The government official did not expect to find Imana Kids or Kara there. As the foreigners drove away from the coincidental encounter, authorities marched up the hill and closed the orphanage. It was a success and another crisis at the same time. Orphans scattered from Antoine’s building. Some ran away and were never found. Others were in school and found themselves without a home for the next school break.
James tracked down kids with help from the older orphans. Imana Kids bankrolled a transitional home they called the Sparrows’ Nest (a reference to Psalms 84:3). Kara and Ryan found themselves continuing to take turns on return visits every few months. James found himself the 24-7 custodian for up to 50 kids at once, depending on the time of year.
By 2017, Kara needed more time to focus on Imana Kids every week. She took a second job as a nurse-midwife in the Navy Reserve, a lieutenant position, which allowed extra hours for Imana Kids while working less at OneWorld in Omaha.
The reach of Imana Kids has grown steadily. By fall 2018, the nonprofit has led 10 groups to Rwanda. They have 173 sponsor kids, including orphans as well as underprivileged children throughout Kigali and nearby communities. Ages range from preschool up to older students in trade schools and universities in Rwanda.
The Higginses refer to all the children from Antoine’s orphanage as the “original Imana Kids,” and they have enjoyed watching them gain confidence and mature into adulthood. The first of the original Imana Kids got married in summer 2017; Ryan and Kara attended the ceremony in place of his parents.
Cows are a traditional status symbol in Rwanda, and an important feature of wedding ceremonies. Kara and Ryan hired a herdsman to bring the sounds of a herd to the wedding (the actual cows were too expensive, so they paid him to walk through the service carrying a tape recorder with mooing on loop—a cheaper alternative that the herdsman suggested for their budget).
The next major milestone for Imana Kids was to get one of the former street kids into an American university. “For the rest of the world, I think this would legitimize that what we are doing is working, that any kid can succeed,” Kara says. “They just need to be given a fair opportunity.”
“And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful…”
“From the very moment we met Ismail, we thought he could handle a university in America,” Kara says. During the wedding visit, she and Ryan started to lay out the steps that Ismail needed to follow. He had already finished high school and was volunteering for the country’s national service program as a census worker.
After taking the necessary English proficiency exams, Ismail began sending applications to several dozen American universities. Creighton was always his No. 1 choice. But he tried not to get his hopes up.
His first conditional acceptance to an American university came from Franklin Pierce University, a private school in New Hampshire. He was also accepted to a university in Rwanda, backup if he could not secure a U.S. student visa.
On the bus, after being unable to complete his first scheduled visa interview appointment at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Ismail thought it was all over. Luckily, he had a guardian angel keeping tabs with the embassy from halfway around the world.
“I got on the bus and headed back home, feeling very discouraged,” Ismail says. “Then Kara sent me a message telling me to go back: ‘They said that you can meet someone there.’ I told the driver to stop. I was halfway home, so I took the moto [motorcycle taxi] and went back to the embassy.”
It was the middle of the night in the middle of America, but Kara Higgins was following up with the Rwandan U.S. embassy over the phone. She was texting updates back to Ismail in real time, and he followed her instructions.
His motorcycle taxi driver sped through traffic, swerving around honking cars and trucks. He arrived back at the embassy, but was too late. Closing time. They told him to come back another day. “I was getting a little bit of hope,” Ismail admits with renewed optimism. He returned the next day, and the embassy gave him an interview (thanks to Kara’s persistent phone calls).
Unfortunately, he still had to wait another week to receive confirmation of whether or not the visa would be approved or rejected. With the uncertainty hanging over Ismail’s visa hopes, Kara and Ryan embarked on their largest-ever group trip to Rwanda. The 24-person team consisted of board members, family relatives, a married couple from Minnesota going to meet their sponsor daughter for the first time, pastors, college girls seeking missionary experience, and strangers from across the country who had only recently learned of Imana Kids on the internet.
Upon arriving in Kigali, the Imana Kids team hopped between boarding schools and preschools. A mountain of suitcases stuffed with crafts, sports equipment, and bible lessons traveled along with them. It was a weeklong, multi-stop vacation bible school for the younger kids (the sort the Higginses’ Visiting Orphans group had intended but were unable to accomplish). Older sponsor kids participated in workshops to build life skills. Every sponsor kid received a care package stuffed with goodies and a letter from their sponsor family.
Ismail’s day of reckoning at the embassy was scheduled for mid-week of the Imana Kids trip. If approved for a visa, Imana Kids would book his airfare to travel back to Omaha with the Higginses.
Though Ismail was anxious, Kara had no doubts. “Sure, he could be rejected,” Kara says. “But honestly, with every miracle that has happened for Imana Kids, I expected it. Because every idea and dream we planted, we have been able to watch unfold…although it hasn’t always been on the timeline we were hoping for.”
En route to the embassy with Kara and James, Ismail asked to stop by the old Kimisagara slum. He wanted to say goodbye to his mother. He might not see her again for four or five years, the length of his visa for undergraduate studies.
Ismail led the way, wearing a blue Creighton T-shirt. They trudged up the steep hillside between ramshackle mud structures. Her home sat just above the old orphanage. Antoine was still in the neighborhood, James says, but he remains under surveillance.
Entering inside the mud-walled home, Kara met Ismail’s mother for the first time. She thanked Kara and James, praising God, for everything they have done for her son. Tears poured down the face of Ismail’s mother.
The minutes slipped away, and suddenly it was almost time for Ismail’s embassy appointment. If he received the visa, he told his mother, he would be leaving for a place called Nebraska. He might not see her for several years. Then he was off, back down the hillside with Kara and James to discover his fate.
* * * * *
Their van speeds back to central Kigali for the appointment. A crowd of people hover outside the embassy’s entryway. When an officer announces names for appointments, Kara pushes Ismail to the start of the line.
An hour passes. Some of the people in line with Ismail begin exiting the embassy. Ismail was one of the first in, but he is one of the last to exit. Finally, he steps outside with a wide grin on his face. He’s holding a passport in his hand with the fresh visa page open. Kara screams and rushes to give him a big hug.
When they meet back with the rest of the Imana Kids team at a local boarding school, everyone swarms around Ismail offering congratulations.
Kara and Ryan’s checklist for Imana Kids is making progress: Ismail’s miracle. Check. The next miracle on the agenda? Hope Village (a purpose-built, trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village in Bugesera, an hour south of Kigali). Imana Kids has already purchased the piece of land, which is empty except for bushes and wildflowers. Construction is slated to begin in July 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.
They take the team to Bugesera to bless the land, joined by all the original Imana Kids from Antoine’s orphanage. Everyone forms a circle, holding hands. James offers a prayer. The Americans and former street kids sing, dance, and pray until the sun comes down. Just before sunset, a herdsman pushes a herd of cattle over the property past the revelries. Cows moo along with the singing voices.
“We’ve seen too many coincidences for them to be mere coincidence,” Ryan says. Ismail says the cows are a sign of good luck.
Ismail’s brothers and sisters from the orphanage join the following day at the Kigali airport to say farewell.
On an airplane for the first time, he buckles in for a long haul—more than 28 hours with layovers in Burundi, Ethiopia, Ireland, and Washington, D.C. Many passengers try to sleep the time away. Not Ismail. He’s too excited to sleep.
At Dulles International Airport, he tastes his first American hamburger and samples sushi for the first time.
His final connecting flight lands at Omaha Eppley Airfield in the afternoon of July 21. There is a crowd waiting to greet him with balloons.
Ismail walks into his new life like a dream—and prayer—come true.
The spring gala for Imana Kids—“Love One Child”—will feature a film screening and international speakers over three days, March 21-23. Visit imanakids.org for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.