Braided Lives

From brutality, death, survival, and triumph, a family emerges

This should have gone more quickly than it did. The INS required a document from a local government office. I left work to introduce myself and hand deliver the necessary information to the appropriate clerk, because the additional twenty-four hours of postal delivery was time we couldn't waste. Leave from Egide's job was generous, but not indefinite, and our money was finite. If the work was not completed by January, choices would have to be made, including the possibility of relocating to Rwanda. The clerk heard our story and promised to complete the material and mail it the next day. I continued to work to fulfill the other INS requirements. But the process came to a standstill: the clerk at the government office didn't move on our papers for two weeks. I was a mad bull when I phoned her: "If you do not complete this work immediately, it won't be the fault of the INS or the State Department or the government of Rwanda that these two children are living without parents, it will be your fault, your own personal responsibility!" I picked up the completed forms the next day.

The INS officer asked for additional information from Rwanda. "Telephone your husband tonight, and get back to me tomorrow," she requested. She hadn't been listening: the infrastructure in Rwanda was already poor before civil war broke out; since the massacres, I could expect to spend up to two hours trying to get a single call through, and that was when the phone lines were operating. Egide stayed in different places, with his sisters and with friends, often without access to a phone, depending on available transportation. I didn't always know where he was. If I left a message at the Embassy, I could expect he would check there every few days. My calls had to be made after midnight Central Standard Time, because of the eight-hour time difference. Telephone Egide and get back to her tomorrow? Where did this clerk think Egide was? Exasperated, I went to the offices of Representatives Bruce Vento, Martin Sabo, Jim Ramstad, and Senator Paul Wellstone. Their people made the magic calls, and the INS cut six weeks off of the projected timeline to issue our clearances. I remain deeply grateful for this gift of time.

During the last week of November, the State Department proceeded on the visas, but the Embassy in Kigali was not equipped to handle them. Egide brought the children to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. Ms. Harris came through for us once again: she called her contacts in Nairobi to arrange for the official doctor to come in from his Christmas holiday to make the required examinations of the children. She helped Egide find places to stay, and she convinced her colleagues to work through the holidays to process the visas. It's hard to think back on these kindnesses now, in the wake of the Nairobi Embassy bombing in 1998. Good people worked in that building.

On December 30, 1995, Egide and the children arrived at Hubert H. Humphrey International Airport. He hadn't confirmed the flight to Minneapolis until the day before, so my mother and I met the plane alone. It was a gray, snowy morning. We carried coats and hats for everyone, gifts from Egide's coworkers. I called KSTP TV to cover the homecoming. They would broadcast to everyone who had worked so hard and prayed for us that there was a happy ending; the children were finally here. The reporter clipped a mic to my coat while we waited for the plane to land. I turned to my mother and said in a loud, cheerful voice: "Mom, look, I've got a mic!"

I was too subtle. My mother looked at it and said, "It's really too bad none of your sisters are here. I bet they could have come if they had tried." Oh, Mom. That wasn't an observation we needed to share with TV land. People disembarked the airplane, and finally, there was Egide with two tired children. Egide introduced me right away: "This is your Mama," he said in Kinyarwandan. I was afraid to touch the children. I didn't want to frighten them: me, the strange, white woman who was suddenly the new Mama. They politely embraced me. I stood and tried to look friendly. The only experienced parent at hand took control: my mother grabbed Ruth and hustled a winter coat onto her. "Come on, Kristen, Egide," Mom said, "Let's get these kids dressed and get them home."

The first few days were pure celebration. We ate, we slept, we danced; the children met family and friends, and they accepted everything. They ate the food, they slept in their beds, they delighted in their toys. The only immediate difficulty was with Ruth's teeth, several of which were rotted so she couldn't chew comfortably. My dentist took her in as soon as his office opened and fixed her up. Everything was easy, the dragons were slain, and the young prince and princess were saved.

Then Egide decided it was time to put his life back on track. He couldn't stomach postponing school for one more quarter. He signed up for evening college classes to start the second week in January. He worked forty hours a week and was preoccupied weekday evenings with classes and all day on weekends with studying. Ruth and Paul and I didn't have five words in common, but I was the primary caregiver. I worried about how schooling and day care would fall into place while I worked full time. My parents recognized before I did that they had two new grandchildren whom they wanted time with: they willingly took over the immediate day-care responsibilities.

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