Editor / West Texas Angelus
ABILENE — Thaddee Uwimana had a good childhood. He was raised in a Christian family with three brothers, two sisters and a mom and dad active in the Catholic Church in his native Rwanda. His knowledge of the United States came in part from watching John Wayne movies (he has a portrait of The Duke hanging in his living room) and watching the Chicago Bulls play in the NBA Championships in the 1990s.
Thaddee, pronounced Teddy, enrolled in a small seminary before opting instead for medical school in Rwanda. After med school he became a doctor in Rwanda and even owned five houses. He was one of the fortunate ones.
But when the factions in Rwanda, the Hutus and Tutsis, began warring, Thaddee and his wife and child were forced from their home and lived for five years in refugee camps. They called small spaces under bushes and below trees their new home. They would become refugees in their own country for five years, before fleeing to Kenya and finally to the Ivory Coast where the violence caught up with them again. Thaddee and his family would apply for residency in the United States and finally in 2002 he and wife, Pascasie and their two children moved to Abilene.
It wasn’t until he left Rwanda, though, that the worst part of the journey for the Uwimana family began to unfold. Two of his brothers and one sister were murdered in Rwanda. And then came the cruelest hurt of all.
“My father and mother moved into one of my houses in Rwanda,” Thaddee said. “One day, a rebel came into the house and demanded my father leave, that the house now belonged to him. My father said, ‘No, this is my son’s house.’ They shot him. He was 92.”
Sylvain Uwimana was a Christian, a religious education teacher at his church and a farmer. A good, spirit filled man, Thaddee calls him. So inspirational was Sylvain that Thaddee and Pascasie named their children Sylvie, Sylva and Sylvanius. The younger two children were born in America. Sylvanius was born with Down Syndrome. He had open heart surgery as an infant and has continuing heart concerns.
Life has been a challenge for Uwimana. But it is only his later years in Africa that he terms an “extreme ordeal.”
The challenges he and his family have faced here -- including his professional adjustment -- have been manageable compared with watching your homeland turned into a violent killing field and being forced to flee from camp to camp and ultimately country to country.
Thaddee thought he had found a peaceful home in the Ivory Coast until waking up one morning to the sound of gunfire.
The French military rescued the Uwimanas and ultimately they landed in Abilene, where Thaddee said he expected to find cowboys and horses. His vision of Texas was just what Hollywood told him it would be — even from half way around the world.
Thaddee didn’t find those staged trappings, and life in Abilene has been anything but war-torn. He and his family have a new home, and a new family, at Abilene’s Holy Family, has provided the support and friendship the Uwimanas didn’t have in Africa.
Still, Thaddee says, “I miss my country. It is my native country. I hope to live long enough to see it return to a peaceful country where I can return to visit.”
One of the more difficult changes Thaddee was faced with upon arrival in America was being unable to practice medicine as he could in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, where he also served as a worker with the International Red Cross. In Abilene, he is the assistant director of nursing at the Windcrest Alzheimer’s Care Center.
Thaddee made $2 a day as a practicing physician in Rwanda but still, being unable to work as a doctor here feels as though his career has been taken from him, he said. When he applies for jobs in his chosen profession, Thaddee said, he never mentions that he has a medical degree from Rwanda, but his coworkers and bosses soon come to know and realize how intelligent he is and how good of a doctor he would be if allowed to practice.
Thaddee has worked at Windcrest for six months. Pascasie, works as a caregiver at Abilene State School, Thaddee’s previous employer. Born on Easter, Pascasie also came from a Christian home, like her husband. They met in college. Together with their children, they don’t have the words necessary to thank the people who have taken them in at Holy Family, and elsewhere in Abilene.
“The church and the schools have been very supportive,” Thaddee said. “Deacon Rhodes is our youngest son’s godfather. He was born right after we came here.”
Thaddee still has nightmares about things he would want no other person to ever see: babies breastfeeding from mothers that have been murdered and unending streams of the victims of violence flooding into the Red Cross hospitals where he worked, for instance.
“I saw many things. Sometimes I still see those images and cannot forget,” he said. “The cholera was horrible. People using Lake Kivu as a bathroom, and also as a source for drinking water. There are no rules there. It’s like a jungle.”
From 1990 when Thaddee was first forced from his home, he and his family ran from the violence, until 2002. Through it all, there was one thing that kept him going.
“If I didn’t have my faith, I would be gone,” he said. “From when I lived in my big house until I was living in the bush, sometimes we didn’t know if we would survive. It is one day at a time. I had many things in life and I lived many different kinds of lives. It is my faith that saved me.”