I was a year old when extremists murdered 800,000 Tutsis and others in my country, Rwanda, in 1994, including my birth parents. I survived and started a new life in Michigan thanks to a new grandma, warm-hearted strangers in Kenya, a family in Grand Rapids and a little-known United States resettlement program designed to help refugee orphans.
When I read that President Joe Biden signed a presidential memo in September that said the U.S. would welcome 125,000 refugees next year, I began to hope this will include more “unaccompanied refugee minors” like me.
I would have been among the Rwanda genocide dead if it hadn’t been for the woman I’d soon call grandma. She was escaping through the woods and found me on the forest floor. She picked me up, cradled me and took me with her as she fled. She raised me.
We traveled to different countries looking for safety and ended up in Nairobi, Kenya. I was 16 when my grandma passed away from cancer. Soon after that a U.S. organization called RefugePoint, which helps at-risk refugees and was already assisting my grandma and me, connected me to the U.S. resettlement system’s special program for unaccompanied refugee minors. I was told I was going to Michigan where a couple would welcome me into their home.
When I stepped off the plane in Grand Rapids, I saw a friendly man and woman waving at me. They were Greg and Bari, my new parents. Their five other daughters were with them. One was white; one was African; and three were Asian. Suddenly, I had five sisters. Four of them had also come through the same resettlement program. My new sisters kept me up late that first night asking me questions about myself. They made me feel right at home.
Bari and Greg gave me a home, loved me like their own child and helped me to pursue my dreams. I graduated from college and then nursing school. When my boyfriend, Adam, knelt down at the beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and proposed to me, they were the first people I called to share my news. When I got married, they walked me down the aisle. When I became a U.S. citizen, they stood by me at the ceremony. When I had my first child, Sophia, I knew that she had grandparents who would always be there for her.
Sophia makes me think of my grandma. When she passed away in Kenya, it was the hardest time in my life. I was so close to her. We always slept in the same bed together. We shared all our food, everything. Without her, I was scared. I felt devastated. What would happen to me?
Some wonderful Kenyans cared for me, such as a woman named Clotilda. I remember her saying, ‘Don’t let your past define you. You can do what you want to do. You can be what you want to be.’ Her words gave me courage and confidence. She gave me the biggest goodbye hug as I was leaving to fly to the U.S. in 2009 through that resettlement program.
The unaccompanied minors are identified overseas by the United Nations Refugee Agency and its partners and then referred to the program. A U.S. customs and immigration officer interviews the minor and makes a decision about whether or not the child can come to the U.S.. If it’s a yes, as it was in my case, there are security checks, medical exams and then the flight.
In the U.S., adults — like my parents, Bari and Greg — can sign up and get trained to foster an unaccompanied refugee minor. They are assigned a case worker from a local resettlement agency to support the family and then matched with an incoming refugee minor. Nearly 13,000 unaccompanied minors have come through this program since it started in the 1980s.
When I watch the news about Ukraine and Afghanistan, I think of my own experiences and know that there is a path to a brighter future for their unaccompanied children — even if the present seems unbearably hard.
When my grandma was dying in the hospital, the nurses there took such good care of her that I decided then that I would become a nurse. But, as a refugee in Kenya, that path was closed to me. Now I live with my family in Detroit. As director of infection control in a nursing home, I have helped many COVID-19 patients and many others. My dreams came true in America.
I hope the Biden administration brings in more unaccompanied minors through this program and that more Americans will sign up to take them in. That will help the program grow. The more orphaned refugee children who have access to this program, the more children with backgrounds similar to mine can have the same chance at a new life and at giving back to their new communities in America as I did.
Edith Tye is a board member of RefugePoint, an organization that helps at-risk refugees and focuses on unaccompanied children.