An immigrant’s path to Duke and how it changed his life
By Aaron Welborn, Director of Communications
Even if you spent all your time at Duke in the library, you would probably never meet Emmanuel Senga. And even if you did, it would probably make no difference to you whether he was a Hutu or a Tutsi.
But twenty-four years ago, when the killings started, that was the one thing about Emmanuel—and every other Rwandan like him—that made the difference between life and death.
Emmanuel works in Duke’s Library Service Center, the high-density repository five miles from campus that houses 5.5 million books, documents, and archival materials belonging to Duke and other Triangle area institutions. When a student or faculty member requests a book held off-site at the LSC, chances are it will pass through Emmanuel’s hands.
He has worked there since 2012, the year before he officially became an American citizen. Emmanuel and his family came to the U.S. as refugees and survivors of one of the worst genocides in modern history. Considering how many times he has narrowly escaped death, it seems remarkable he is here at all, safe and sound, scanning books, retrieving books, and putting them back where they belong.
His story is a powerful reminder that ours is a nation of immigrants, however the political winds may blow, and that many of the people who keep a globally minded university like Duke running come from all over the globe themselves.
Although he likes working at Duke, this wasn’t the life Emmanuel pictured for himself. “One of the most frustrating parts about moving to a country where you don’t speak the language is having to start over at the bottom,” he said. Hard-earned degrees and credentials from one country don’t necessarily count for anything in another.
He was trained as a teacher of languages at the National University of Rwanda. For ten years, he taught French, Linguistics, and Kinyarwanda at the Minor Seminary of Ndera-Kigali, helping to prepare young men who felt called to the priesthood. Seminaries were the top private schools in the country, and their teachers were selected accordingly. For many Roman Catholic Hutus like Emmanuel, an appointment to the faculty of a seminary was a good and secure job.
His wife, Jeanne, was a nurse. A Tutsi, she was born in Rwanda but raised in neighboring Tanzania. Like thousands of other Tutsis, she was the child of refugees who had fled Rwanda in an earlier revolution that saw the abolition of a monarchy dominated by the Tutsi minority elite and the establishment of a republic ruled by the country’s Hutu majority.
They were married in 1987. The mixed marriage caused some family friction, but ethnic differences can’t stop people from loving each other. In 1989, Emmanuel and Jeanne welcomed a son, Didier. Three years later came a daughter, Anaise. A young family in the prime of life, residing in a vibrant capital city—life could be worse.
And then suddenly, it was.
Emmanuel still remembers the day, April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down over Kigali. The resulting crash killed everyone onboard. Emmanuel was watching soccer on TV at the seminary when he heard the explosion. It was soon followed by the sound of gunshots. “We have to hide,” a colleague said to him.
Over the next several months, the entire country was swept up in a wave of anarchy and mass killings, in which the army and Hutu militia groups known as the interahamwe played a central role. Radio broadcasts fanned the flames by encouraging Hutu civilians to kill their Tutsi neighbors. The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) responded in kind. As Hutus sought to exterminate Tutsis, the RPF killed Hutus in a bid to reclaim control of the country. Meanwhile, the international community stood by and watched.
For ethnically mixed Hutu-Tutsi families, like Emmanuel and Jeanne, their only hope was to go into hiding.
The Rwandan genocide is said to have lasted approximately one hundred days, from April 6 to mid-July 1994. During that time, an estimated 800,000 civilians were killed, mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus. The exact death toll may never be known. Many of the victims died in extremely brutal ways, often at the hands of people they knew.
It is impossible to convey, in this brief space, what Emmanuel, Jeanne, and their children went through during that nightmarish time period. But here, in extremely abbreviated form, are a few things that happened to them, starting in the month of April.
After the president’s plane was shot down, they took refuge in the seminary where Emmanuel worked. From the surrounding area people started pouring in, seeking a place of safety. But nowhere was truly safe.
Within a few days the militias appeared and started separating Hutus from Tutsis. (In Rwanda, your ethnicity is not something you could easily hide. Everyone’s government-issued ID proclaimed it. And anyway, it was a small world. People knew each other and could be made to talk.)
One brave soul spoke up on Emmanuel’s behalf and persuaded the militias to let his family leave. But their home had been destroyed, so they hid in the house of a wealthy friend near the seminary.
In addition to their own two children, aged five and two, Emmanuel and Jeanne took in the ten-year-old daughter of a colleague when the rest of her family were killed.
Within days, the militias found out where they were hiding and demanded payment in exchange for not killing Jeanne. Emmanuel complied, but then the militias came back, wanting more money. Then they came back again.
Emmanuel and Jeanne decided she should flee and try to find a safer place to hide, bypassing the roadblocks where Tutsis were being killed on the spot. He stayed behind with the children, the youngest of whom, Anaise, was still breastfeeding.
Weeks went by with no word from his wife. On April 26, an acquaintance gave Emmanuel some bad news. Jeanne hadn’t made it. She was dead.
That was the month of April.
In May, Emmanuel decided to leave Kigali. A nephew in the military helped him and the three children get a ride to the town of Gitarama. A trip that normally takes one hour stretched into six, as they crept through roadblock after terrifying roadblock.
In Gitarama, no one wanted to take them in. Emmanuel and the children were obliged to live in primitive conditions, with no electricity, no running water, no money, and entirely dependent on the charity of others.
That was the month of May, and also the month of June.
In July, the Tutsi-led RPF arrived at Gitarama. They began killing Hutus and their relatives, as well as anyone who sheltered them.
Eventually they found Emmanuel, who was certain his time was up. But then a strange thing happened. When he told the soldiers who came for him that his wife was dead, one of them took pity on him. Turns out he was also from Tanzania, like Jeanne.
The Tanzanian took Emmanuel aside and told him they were going to concoct a story about Jeanne being his long-lost sister. When the other men heard the story, they believed it and stood down. Then they all drank beers together, Emmanuel and his would-be killers.
Before they left, the Tanzanian gave Emmanuel a note in Swahili, stating that he was Emmanuel’s brother-in-law and promising him safe passage. To this day, Emmanuel isn’t sure why the man did this. He thinks it has something to do with Tanzanians’ deep sense of national pride and family-like fellow feeling for their countrymen.
On July 4, the RPF seized Kigali and established military control over much of the rest of the country. Millions of Hutus fled to Congo and other neighboring countries.
By mid-July, a transitional government was sworn in. Three months after it had started, the genocide had come to an end.
Desperate for money and work, and knowing there would be a need for educated men and women in the new administration in Kigali, Emmanuel made his way there and began making inquiries.
Over the course of a few days, two separate sources told him that Jeanne was actually alive. She had made it to the north of the country, where she had waited out the violence in an RPF orphanage, caring for Tutsi orphans of the genocide.
Around the same time, word reached Jeanne that Emmanuel and the children were still alive in Gitarama. Immediately she set out to find them.
That was the month of July.
On August 4, 1994, Emmanuel, Jeanne, and their family were finally reunited, though their country remained profoundly torn apart.
The years following the genocide were not easy, but a degree of normalcy returned. Jeanne went back to work as a nurse for an ambulance service. Thanks to some contacts from his time at the seminary, Emmanuel got a job as the director of a Catholic relief agency.
In 1998, Emmanuel was approached by a military officer who told him that the government needed educated men like himself. So many had been killed or fled the country during the violence. “It was not a suggestion,” said Emmanuel, but a warning to do his patriotic duty.
Later that year Emmanuel found himself appointed to a surprisingly high-level government post: Director of Protocol for the Rwandan Parliament. Suddenly, this former language instructor was in charge of planning, directing, and supervising a wide range of official government ceremonies and events, as well as serving as a diplomatic liaison with representatives of other states and countries. “It was a very important, always-in-the-spotlight kind of job,” Emmanuel said.
Having experienced so recently what it means to be powerless, Emmanuel unexpectedly found himself at the center of official power. But it was a center that could not hold. The events of 1994 weighed heavily on the country, which was becoming a de facto one-party state. (Since he was elected President of Rwanda in 2000, Paul Kagame has clung to power and overseen changes to the constitution that could allow him to remain in office until 2034.) Power struggles and ethnic strife always loomed, undermining real progress. “I started to witness more persecutions, killings, retributions,” Emmanuel said. The spotlight was a perilous place to be.
But it was ultimately his position as a government insider that helped Emmanuel and his family get out.
Their chance arrived in July 2004. Jeanne was invited on a whirlwind tour of the United States as part of an official program for African women who were considered opinion leaders in their fields. The six women selected were expected to bring back what they learned to their home countries. But before she left, Jeanne and Emmanuel secretly agreed: she would not be returning to Rwanda.
At the end of the five-state tour, Jeanne declared asylum at the U.S. embassy in Washington, D.C., and petitioned to have Emmanuel and the children join her.
Because of his high position in the Rwandan government, Emmanuel was a familiar face to foreign diplomats and their embassies around Kigali. It would not be seen as strange for him to spend an hour or two at the American embassy, under the pretense of some official business. Meanwhile he was secretly making his way through the official channels of the asylum process.
Getting out of the country was another matter altogether. “I couldn’t fly out of the airport in Kigali,” Emmanuel said. “Everyone knew me there, and I would be arrested.” He and the children would have to make it to Uganda and get a flight from there.
In the end, he was arrested—twice. First at the Ugandan border, where he was detained in a military camp, interrogated, and stripped of his passport to prevent him from leaving the country. Eventually released, he crossed the border illegally, made his way to Entebbe, and caught a flight out—only to be arrested again by Ethiopian authorities during a layover in Addis Ababa. “I was trembling, but God is always around me,” said Emmanuel. During a moment of commotion when the airport guards were distracted, Emmanuel and his son and daughter rushed onto their plane just moments before it took off.
They arrived in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 2005.
Fast-forward to today. The Sengas have been living in the U.S. for almost thirteen years. Jeanne is a Certified Nurse Assistant at the VA Hospital in Durham. Didier, now twenty-nine years old, earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and is now a graduate student at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro. Anaise, now twenty-six, attended East Carolina University briefly and now holds down multiple jobs. As for the ten-year-old girl Emmanuel and Jeanne rescued in 1994, she is now thirty-four, married with two children of her own, and residing in Canada.
For a long time, Emmanuel had hoped to return to teaching. In 2010 he completed a master’s degree in Francophone studies from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. But the Great Recession intervened. It was a hard time to find teaching jobs, even if you were a natural-born citizen and a native English-speaker. He was neither.
Still, unexpected opportunities presented themselves. He got to know Steve Cohn, director of Duke University Press, whose children attended the same high school as Emmanuel’s. Steve arranged a part-time job for him at the press, doing whatever odd jobs needed to be done. It wasn’t a permanent position, but it was a start.
In 2012, Emmanuel applied and was hired as a full-time Library Assistant in the Library Service Center. As he says in his own words, “I am settled. I have a mortgage, I can feed my family, and I am not far from retirement. I am what I am now because of Duke.”
“Emmanuel came highly recommended from Duke Press,” said Marvin Tillman, the Head of the LSC and Emmanuel’s supervisor. “During the interview, he had a smile that lit up the room. I instantly felt like this is the kind of person I want working in our department. Since his hiring, he has been like family to everyone here. We’ve learned a lot about his culture, and he has learned a lot about ours. After learning about the things he and his family endured in Rwanda, I am amazed at how he is so happy and always smiling. Emmanuel is a hard and dependable worker, a loving family man, and most of all a friend to everyone he meets. We are fortunate to have him.”
Although he can never return to Rwanda, Emmanuel remains deeply involved in the affairs of his home country. For the past four years, he has edited and produced an online magazine and a weekly radio show dedicated to Rwandan politics. Every Sunday night, he hosts conversations with experts and commentators on Rwandan affairs. The show has thousands of regular listeners who call in, including many back home in Rwanda and fellow expatriates like Emmanuel scattered around the globe. He is proud of the show, which offers a counterpoint to official Rwandan news coverage and has had an effect on national conversations back home.
Asked if he ever has mixed feelings about living in America, a country that refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide while it was happening, Emmanuel is demure. “My time in the national parliament helped me understand that governments don’t have friends, they have interests,” he said. “That had nothing to do with the American people, but with the interests of the American government at the time.”
He has much the same outlook on the present state of American politics and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that often dominates the news. “When I see families being separated, as a father I understand what that’s like,” he said. “They came here like me, seeking a better life. I am an American, but I also remain a Rwandan. It’s complicated.”
Every year, Duke hosts thousands of foreign nationals who come here to work, teach, or do research. Like other institutions across the country, Duke has recently and publicly reaffirmed its commitment to the open exchange of students, scholars, and ideas from all over the world. That commitment lies at the heart of the twenty-first century research university.
And while the university doesn’t keep track of the number of employees who were born in other countries but now permanently reside in the U.S., ask any Duke employee and most will know at least one co-worker like Emmanuel who is an immigrant. With some 37,000 faculty, staff, and medical practitioners, Duke’s workforce is almost as diverse as its student body, drawn from nations and cultures around the world.
From a human resources perspective, that diversity is inarguably a strength. It’s also a source of endless learning opportunities in itself. A Duke education is the collective work of many instructive individuals, though you may only ever get to meet a few of them.