A Man’s Journey From a Rwandan Dump to the Ivy League


You’ve probably never heard the name Justus Uwayesu before today but his story is as inspiring as it is tragic. Born two years before the ethnic genocide in Rwanda, Justus’ early life would be dominated by the tragedy that resulted in the death of 800,000 people in just 100 days. Born in rural eastern Rwanda, Justus was left an orphan at three years old when his father was killed for identifying as part of the Tutsi clan and his mother disappeared not long after. He and three of his siblings were rescued by Red Cross workers who cared for him until 1998, when they had to disband due to a large influx of parentless children.


Fighting for Survival

When they returned to their village they were met with drought and famine, forcing Justus and his siblings to seek out a new place where they hoped they could find food. Justus was just eight years old when he walked over 60 miles to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in search of help. Instead Justus ended up at Ruviri, Kigali’s garbage dump that was “home” to hundreds of orphans and pigs. Justus lived in a stripped-out abandoned car, using only dirty cardboard to protect him from the elements.


For the next 18 months Justus’ only concern was finding enough food and water, which he was sometimes able to get from trucks that brought unfinished food from bakeries and hotels. This was no easy feat, since Justus had to compete with other hungry orphans for a small amount of the most desired leftovers. There were days when no trucks would come and Justus would hope to find edible bits in the garbage before the bigger kids would get to them. At this point Justus could not see a future for himself.

A Light in the Darkness

Then one Sunday in 2001 Ms. Effiong arrived. Clare Effiong’s charity, Esther’s Aid, decided to focus its efforts on Rwanda’s countless orphans and delivered containers of food and clothing not far from Ruviri. Effiong took a cab to the dump and saw a group of orphans, who she had a conversation with. She told them that she could bring them to a safe place and also asked what they wanted. Justus was the only one who didn’t refuse the help and answered that what he most wanted was to go to school.


Effiong enrolled Justus in primary school and paid for everything that he would need along the way. He excelled in school, eventually earning straight A’s through high school. Although he only spoke his native language when Effiong found him, Justus knew how to speak five languages by the time he graduated high school and excelled in both math and chemistry. He was even selected for one of thirty spots in Bridge2Rwanda, a scholars program that prepares students to apply to colleges in the United States while helping them secure scholarships. Throughout this whole time Justus was also working with Esther’s Aid to help other orphans like him.

Once in a Garbage Dump, Now in Harvard

Justus applied to schools with the help of B2R and in March of 2014 he got his answer: an acceptance from Harvard. Justus screamed with joy and immediately called Effiong, exclaiming “Mom, MOM! I’m going to Harvard!” Justus enrolled this fall on a full scholarship and is currently studying for an advanced science degree.


What Can You Do?

There is much that can be learned from Justus’ story. First and foremost, be thankful for what you have, including many of the opportunities that you have probably taken for granted. For many of us school was a chore when we were growing up but the opportunity to acquire knowledge isn’t one that is afforded to everybody. Even as he struggled to find food and shelter the thing that Justus most wanted was to learn. Do you have any skills that you need to brush up on? Is there a course you should take or books you should read to further your understanding in your field? Take a second to appreciate all of the resources available to you and learn something new, even if it is just a hobby. After all, learning a new skill helps to keep your mind sharp.

Life can be jam-packed with work, school, family, and tons of other obligations but use this as an opportunity to reflect on how you can help those in need. Even with all of his success Justus never lost sight of where he came from, recognizing that good fortune has been bestowed upon him and that now it’s his job to help others. The best thing to do is to find a cause that you are passionate about. If you can’t donate money there are definitely places where you can donate your time, no matter how little. It’s easy to feel like the problems are too big and that you can’t do anything to help but Justus is living proof that that is not the case. In addition to helping others you may also experience some of the secondary benefits of volunteering, like connecting with other people and even increased happiness.


Justus Uwayesu has overcome many obstacles in his short life and he would be the first to tell you that he could not have done it without the help of Ms. Effiong. Don’t take for granted all that you have and the opportunities you receive. Also recognize that no matter how bad your situation seems there are others who have gone through worse and persevered. Don’t worry if you need some help along the way since every success was achieved because people helped out when it was needed. If you find yourself in a fortunate position in life then do what you can to help others out. Regardless of whether you volunteer at a charity or tutor a failing classmate, helping those who need it will bring positive changes to both of your lives.




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