From a Rwandan Dump to the Halls of Harvard

Published October 25, 2014


Justus Uwayesu, rescued at 9 from the streets of Rwanda, is enrolled as a freshman at Harvard.Credit Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times       

BOSTON — Nine years old and orphaned by ethnic genocide, he was living in a burned-out car in a Rwandan garbage dump where he scavenged for food and clothes. Daytimes, he was a street beggar. He had not bathed in more than a year.

When an American charity worker, Clare Effiong, visited the dump one Sunday, other children scattered. Filthy and hungry, Justus Uwayesu stayed put, and she asked him why.

“I want to go to school,” he replied.

Well, he got his wish.

This autumn, Mr. Uwayesu enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University on a full-scholarship, studying math, economics and human rights, and aiming for an advanced science degree. Now about 22 — his birthday is unknown — he could be, in jeans, a sweater and sneakers, just another of the 1,667 first-year students here.

But of course, he is not. He is an example of the potential buried even in humanity’s most hopeless haunts, and a sobering reminder of how seldom it is mined.

Over the 13 years since his escape from the smoldering trash heap that was his home, Mr. Uwayesu did not simply rise through his nation’s top academic ranks. As a student in Rwanda, he learned English, French, Swahili and Lingala. He oversaw his high school’s student tutoring program. And he helped found a youth charity that spread to high schools nationwide, buying health insurance for poor students and giving medical and scholastic aid to others.

He is nonetheless amazed and amused by the habits and quirks of a strange land.

“I tried lobster, and I thought it was a big fight,” he said. “You have to work for it to get to the meat.” And the taste? “I’m not sure I like it,” he said.

Fresh from a land dominated by two ethnic groups — the majority Hutu and the Tutsi, who died en masse with some moderate Hutu in the 1994 conflict — he says he is delighted by Harvard’s stew of nationalities and lifestyles. He was pleasantly taken aback by the blasé acceptance of openly gay students — “that’s not something we hear about in Rwanda”— and disturbed to find homeless beggars in a nation otherwise so wealthy that “you can’t tell who is rich and who isn’t.

He says his four suitemates, hailing from Connecticut, Hawaii and spots in between, have helped him adjust to Boston life. But he is still trying to figure out an American culture that is more frenetic and obstreperous than in his homeland.

“People work hard for everything,” he said. “They do things fast, and they move fast. They tell you the truth; they tell you their experiences and their reservations. In Rwanda, we have a different way of talking to adults. We don’t shout. We don’t be rowdy. But here, you think independently.”

Born in rural eastern Rwanda, Mr. Uwayesu was only 3 when his parents, both illiterate farmers, died in a politically driven slaughter that killed some 800,000 people in 100 days. Red Cross workers rescued him with a brother and two sisters — four other children survived elsewhere — and cared for them until 1998, when the growing tide of parentless children forced workers to return them to their village.

They arrived as a drought, and then famine, began to grip their home province. “I was malnourished,” Mr. Uwayesu said. “My brother would tell me, ‘I’m going out to look for food,’ and then he would come back without it. There were times we did not cook the whole day.”

In 2000, young Justus and his brother walked to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and a city of about one million, in search of food and help. Instead, they wound up at Ruviri, a sprawling garbage dump on the city’s outskirts that was home to hundreds of orphans and herds of pigs.

Justus found a home with two other children in an abandoned car, its smashed-out windows and floor covered with cardboard. For the next year and a half, he said, all but the search for food and shelter fell by the wayside. “There was no shower, no bathing at all,” he said. “The only thing was to keep something warm for the night, something really warm.”

He learned to spot trucks from hotels and bakeries that carried the tastiest castoffs, and to leap atop them to grab his share before they discharged their loads to less nimble orphans.

For days when there was nothing to eat — no trucks came on Sundays, and bigger children claimed most edible garbage — he hoarded food in discarded cooking-oil tins, sunk into trash-fire embers to keep their contents warm.

Mr. Uwayesu said he was hobbled in a fall from one moving trash truck, and once nearly buried alive by a bulldozer pushing mounds of garbage into a pit.

Just 9, he spent nights in terror that a tiger said to roam the dump would attack him (there are no tigers in Africa). In the daytime, begging on the streets, he saw a world that was beyond him. “At noon,” he said, “kids would be coming back from school in their uniforms, running and playing in the road. Sometimes they would call me nayibobo” — literally, forgotten child. “They knew how different we were from them.”

“It was a really dark time, because I couldn’t see a future,” he said. “I couldn’t see how life could be better, or how I could come out of that.”

Purely by chance, Ms. Effiong proved the boy’s savior.

The charity that Ms. Effiong founded, in New Rochelle, N.Y., Esther’s Aid, decided in 2000 to center its efforts on helping Rwanda’s throngs of orphans. One Sunday in 2001, after delivering a shipping container of food and clothing, she took a taxi to the dump, spotted a scrum of orphans and, after some conversation, offered to take them to a safe place.

All but Justus refused. “I took him to where I was, cleaned him up, changed his clothes, dressed the wounds on his body and eventually sent him to primary school,” she said.

In first grade, he finished at the top of his class. It was a sign of grades to come: straight A’s in high school, followed by a seat in a senior high school specializing in the sciences.

Mr. Uwayesu moved into an orphanage run by Esther’s Aid, then, with two sisters, into the compound where Ms. Effiong lives while in Kigali. Throughout his schooling, he worked at the charity, which since has opened a cooking school for girls and is building a campus for orphans.

He would not have been able to compete for a spot in an American university without outside help, however. After high school, he applied for and won a seat in a yearlong scholars program, Bridge2Rwanda, run by a charity in Little Rock, Ark., that prepares talented students for the college-application process.

For roughly the past decade, Harvard’s international admissions director has personally scoured Africa for potential applicants each year.

Like most top universities, Harvard chooses its freshmen without regard to their ability to pay tuition. But until this year, the Cambridge campus had only one Rwandan student, Juliette Musabeyezu, a sophomore.

No more. Of the 25 or so African applicants who made this year’s cut, three are from Rwanda, including a second Bridge2Rwanda scholar.

Not bad for a little country that is home to barely 1 percent of Africa’s billion-plus population.

The New York Times

Peace Works Travel student travelers meet Kim Phuc


Peace Works Travel student travelers share how meeting Kim Phuc made their educational trip to Vietnam a life-changing experience.

(Fox News misspelling below). See the video clip here:




Kim Phuc Visits Southern California Schools

Published October 22, 2014

Kim Phuc, the Vietnam War’s iconic “napalm girl” featured in Nick Ut’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning image, speaks to students of Brentwood School, Archer School, Westridge School and Polytechnic School. Students are moved by Kim’s message of loving kindness, peace, and forgiveness for a war-free world.


Kim speaks about the iconic image, the Vietnam War and her journey to forgiveness.


Kim speaks to students at Brentwood School.


Kim lets the students feel her arm where the napalm burned her 9-year-old skin in 1972.


Ms. Danjczek’s students pose with Kim.



Speaking to Brentwood Middle School students.


Claire’s introductory speech moved Kim to tears.


Kim and Brentwood students.


Brentwood Students.


Brentwood Middle school teachers and administration thank Kim for a moving speech.


Brentwood students Asian Student-Alliance host a brownbag lunch with Kim.


A Brentwood student is moved to tears.


An Archer School student studies Nick Ut’s picture while listening to Kim’s talk.



Archer School Theater teacher Reed Farley holds a photo while Kim offers students a hopeful interpretation of the iconic imagery.


Nick Ut and Kim Phuc speak to students at Westridge School.


Kim Phuc honors “Uncle Ut” for his bravery as a wartime journalist. After capturing the iconic image of Kim’s napalm strike, he rushed Kim to the hospital and saved her life.


Westridge School students grades 7-12, teachers and parents are captivated by Kim and Nick’s stories.




An American Girl in Cuba

Published October 9, 2014

Lili Boyle
16-year-old from Pacific Palisades, CA


Posted: 02/08/2012 8:24 am EST Updated: 04/09/2012 5:12 am EDT

Simply put, I love Cuba. No, I am not a communist or a socialist, and I have nothing but love for my country, America. But my biased perceptions of Cuba were broken when I got the chance to explore Cuba and immerse myself in Cuban culture. This past June, I was lucky enough to gain the opportunity to visit Cuba through a student visa. I traveled throughout the island with other students from my school. Our eclectic group had diverse backgrounds with hometowns stretching from Olympia, Washington to Wheeling, West Virginia to my home of Pacific Palisades. As we were getting to know Cuba, we also got to get to know each other better.


Exploration was the cornerstone of our trip; we got the chance to explore the entire country, even inland areas such as Vinales, which is famed for its mogotes, which are large limestone formations that date back to the Jurassic period. We adventured in Cienfuegos, which is renowned for its Cuban architectural achievement and in Trinidad, which is the best-preserved colonial city in Cuba, just to name a few. The two weeks of our trip seemed endless during the duration of our stay, but now looking back, our time in Cuba was too short — even ephemeral. The majority of our time was spent in the historic capitol, Havana. The city of Havana has starkly juxtaposed elements ranging the beautiful architecture to the loud, littered streets. Havana is haunted by the ghost of its colorful and ritzy past. Glamour glints under the aged buildings and the aged society. Havana really does look like a picture from the 1950’s — the dated cars may have been preserved well, but society, not so much. Havana is a city of youth, somehow living in a microcosm of a quondam culture, prevented from evolving. Ration books, a relic of age-old communism that most Cubans used to buy goods, were just eliminated by Raul Castro this past April. Cuba is truly frozen in time, from the peeling paint on the buildings, the empty stores, to the changeless society. Cuba is still a country of extreme paucity — even soap is seen as a luxury. In essence, Cuba is completely beautiful yet eroded. There is tremendous beauty hidden underneath 50-some years of weathering.


We truly experienced all the facets of Cuban culture. My friend was warned by a Cuban family friend before we went to Cuba that we would only experience the “Disneyland version of Cuba.” I can assure you that statement is false. Wherever we went, the highs and lows of Cuban society were clearly illustrated; we saw the beauty, the poverty, the arts, the decay, the hospitality and the biases.

Throughout the entire experience, the gap between America and Cuba was somewhat tangible and worth documenting, but the most palpable illustration of the differences between our societies was seen when visiting the Martin Luther King Junior Center. The center provided a service to Cuban youth similar to our Boys and Girls Clubs. We spent about five hours with the children, learning from each other and communicating in broken English and Spanish.


It was shocking to me how content and happy the Cuban children are with their lives in the restricting and anti-capitalist microcosm that is Cuba. Their parents receive only 1/163 of what our parents make, yet they are not resentful or unhappy about that in any way. Unlike American children, they are not greedy and they have never been on the quest of trying to have more than someone else. When I asked the children if they wanted or even needed anything from America, they replied that they didn’t need anything, that they were happy and content with their lives in Cuba. They repeated again and again, “Yo estoy contento!” Then again, when we gave out the gifts that we brought for them, it was like Christmas in June! The kids were so kind and appreciative. On their own, they carefully and kindly divided the gifts so each kid got something that they loved.

Through talking to the kids at the center, I realized that we are all truly all the same. Even though we may be slightly separated by the embargo, a clear consequence of our feuding countries, our similarities are palpable. The wealth gap between our nations is insanely large; American workers, on average, receive $3261 each month and the preponderance of the Cuban population earns about only 20 American dollars per month. Even with this vast discrepancy, the Cuban children really are just like American children. They gabbed about their crushes on Justin Bieber, how much they love Hannah Montana and their jealousy of Justin Bieber’s girlfriend, Selena Gomez. They sang me “Baby” and a myriad of Hannah Montana songs including “Nobody’s Perfect.” They use dated cell phones and they even dress in a similar fashion. They even speak some English! The disparity between our children and these children lies only in the fact that the Cuban children have less, much less than the American children, and how they are completely content with that.

Before I had to leave the MLK center, we all exchanged contact information. I feel so lucky that I have been able to have an email exchange with Melissa since I left Cuba last June. Every email she reminds me that she is still “estoy contento” and that she doesn’t need anything from America, but she is thankful that I asked. My connection to my friendships in Cuba has lasted, providing a thread that ties our feuding countries together. I hope that Melissa and I will continue to maintain this valuable connection throughout our lives. But my deepest hope is that children of America realize how good we have it and that we shall forever be “estamos contentos” with our fortunate (and democratic!) lives.

slide_208008_668612_free         slide_208008_668621_free






Fred Branfman, Who Exposed Bombing of Laos, Dies at 72

Published October 8, 2014




The Vietnam War was raging when Fred Branfman went to Laos in 1967 as an international aid worker. Determined to immerse himself in the society, he lived with an elderly villager, learned to speak Laotian and became a translator. In time, he met Laotians who told him something startling: There was a second war in their country, a secret American bombing campaign, that was devastating remote villages.

The revelation led him to take up a new mission when his term as an aid worker, for the nonprofit organization International Voluntary Services, ended in the summer of 1969: to bring attention to what became known as the “Secret War.”

It had gone on for years — Air Force bombers attacked parts of Laos controlled by the Communist North Vietnamese, killing thousands of Laotian civilians — but it had been invisible to most Americans.

Mr. Branfman, who was 72 when he died on Sept. 24, in Budapest, became one of the first to expose the air war, publicly challenging accounts by United States officials who had initially denied the bombing campaign and later insisted that it did not target civilian areas.

In Laos, Mr. Branfman took foreign officials and journalists into bombed villages and wrote freelance articles about the campaign. In 1971, he returned to the United States, where he helped start two influential antiwar groups, Project Air War and the Indochina Resource Center, which lobbied Congress to stop financing the war. The same year, he testified before Congress opposite William H. Sullivan, the American ambassador to Laos from 1964 to 1969 and one of the overseers of the bombing campaign.

Mr. Sullivan, who died last year, told Congress that Mr. Branfman and others had exaggerated the issue. Mr. Branfman and another opponent of the war, Representative Paul N. McCloskey Jr., a Republican from California, testified that Mr. Sullivan and the government had concealed the campaign.

The next year, Mr. Branfman provided stark documentation in a book he edited, “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.” The book — its title refers to the hard-hit farming region of northern Laos — included 16 Laotian “autobiographies” drawn from interviews by Mr. Branfman. Some included rudimentary line drawings by villagers depicting family members and neighbors being killed. It told of people fleeing the bombardment and hiding in caves for years.

According to reports at the time, at least two million tons of bombs were dropped from 1964 to 1973, nearly a ton for every person in Laos.

“No American should be able to read that book without weeping at his country’s arrogance,” the columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times in 1973.

Jerome J. Brown, an Air Force captain who had helped identify targets for the bombing campaign in the late 1960s, said in 1972 that Mr. Branfman’s work had motivated him to discuss the campaign in detail publicly.

In 1976, Graham A. Martin, the last American ambassador to South Vietnam, bitterly blamed antiwar groups for the United States’s failure to prevent the fall of Saigon. Calling the antiwar campaign “one of the best propaganda and pressure organizations the world has ever seen,” he singled out one in particular, the Indochina Resource Center.

Fredric Robert Branfman was born on March 18, 1942, in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island, in Great Neck. His father, Ivan, was a textile executive, and his mother, Helen, was a homemaker. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1964 and a master’s in education from Harvard in 1965.

Mr. Branfman taught English in Tanzania before going to work in Laos.

His wife, Zsuzsanna Berkovits Branfman, said he had died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The couple had been living in Budapest for several years. Besides his wife, he is survived by three brothers, Alan, Yaakov and David.

After the war, Mr. Branfman worked in Democratic politics, spending four years in the early 1980s as a senior staff member for Gov. Jerry Brown of California running the California Public Policy Center, a research arm. He was also an adviser to Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, helping to write policy papers for the senator’s 1988 presidential campaign before Mr. Hart dropped out of the race.

Mr. Branfman was later an activist on environmental issues, particularly climate change. He returned to Laos several times, including once to be interviewed for a documentary about the bombing campaign called “The Most Secret Place on Earth.” Last year, a new paperback edition of “Voices From the Plain of Jars” was published.