Daniel Ndamwizeye can still hear the screams of his mother as she was beaten to death, a victim of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that also claimed the lives of his father and two of his sisters.
Minutes before she was murdered in a church where the family had sought refuge from machete-wielding Hutus, Ndamwizeye held his mother’s hand—and felt all the security that personal touch brings, especially at the age of 5.
“It’s the memory that flashes back like it happened yesterday,” Ndamwizeye said of his mother’s slaying. “I never understood the whole thing and I still don’t understand. . . . Sometimes I asked myself why I was saved, and I never get to an answer. It’s just that God saved me from that place, because they could have killed me.”
Over the course of about 100 days, beginning with the assassination of Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandan people—Tutsis and Hutu political moderates—were massacred by tens of thousands of Rwanda’s radical Hutus.
Ndamwizeye’s family was caught up in the horror. Radicals told Daniel’s father, a Hutu, to kill his wife, a Tutsi, and his children. He refused and was murdered. Ndamwizeye’s two sisters were stoned to death when they fled the church in Rwanda where his mother was killed.
More heartbreak followed for Daniel, who went on to suffer years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a relative charged with his care after his parents’ deaths.
But Ndamwizeye is a survivor. He was issued a visa to the United States at the age of 15, when he was reunited with his older sister in Bridgeport.
Ndamwizeye began to shine soon after arriving at Bassick High School at age 15, despite knowing little English and never having had a positive academic experience. Before long he was captain of the volleyball and cross country teams, vice president of the senior class, and immersed in fundraising for good causes. In his senior year, Ndamwizeye was chosen “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Teacher’s Pet,” and “Best Dressed.”
Fast forward to May 17, 2013. Ndamwizeye, who also goes by the name Daniel Trust, earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration degree. The undergraduate commencement ceremony was held at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. He has landed a full-time job with TD Bank.
He spent the summer before his first semester in the Summer Educational Opportunity Program (SEOP), a program designed to provide students with an academic boost and prepare them for college life. While he says he probably would have done fine without the extra help, it was a great experience for adjusting and meeting peers.
“I liked the campus area. It reminded me of New York City,” he said of Southern’s New Haven location “All the people here have been great and supportive.”
Ndamwizeye, who became a U.S. citizen a few years ago, said America has enabled him to pursue his dreams.
Although he’s drawn significantly on his own inner strengths to excel, Ndamwizeye said he’s had help along the way, especially through scholarships that have funded his education at Southern.
“I want to use the opportunities I have to help with scholarships (for others) because I feel lucky to have them,” Ndamwizeye said.
Although Ndamwizeye has managed to pull himself through the trauma, the murder of members of his family and the ensuing abuse from his relatives have left emotional scars along with the physical ones. His legs are scarred from beatings he received after making minor mistakes like breaking a dish he was washing.
The youngest of eight, Ndamwizeye has four surviving siblings—two sisters in the United States and two brothers in Rwanda. Another brother was killed before the genocide when a guitar he was playing was struck by lightning.