‘At 10, I ran away to the bus station. ‘Which goes farthest?’ I had no shoes, one shirt. I needed to find a place where he could never find me. I knew if he got hold of me, my life would be over.’

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“I grew up in small village at the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Like most people there, I had no idea what life was like beyond 50 miles. My family could never afford daily rations of food, so we grew our own, mainly beans, peas, and sweet potatoes that would carry the family for a few months out of the year. I began helping my mother garden at just 4 years old.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

We didn’t have running water or clean water nearby, so us kids had to walk 2-3 hours to fetch drinking water for the family. Poverty was all we knew and there was never any time to be a kid.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

Life was absolutely miserable in every way, shape, and form. We never had anything in our lives that gave us an ounce of hope. Without enough food or even a penny to go to school, dreams or fantasy didn’t exist. We lived in constant survival mode. My family, in particular, was one of the poorest in the village. I never had a pair of shoes until I was 16 years old. Our house was about 30 by 20 feet, so there was not much room. I never had more than two shirts or a mattress to sleep on. We kept warm by sleeping close together on the ground. The oldest siblings slept on the outside, and the youngest on the inside, so we could keep our little brothers warm.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

As the oldest, I had to grow up really fast. By the age of 7, I could do what adults could do. I could prepare meals, walk 2-3 hours to fetch water, help my mother in the garden, clean the house and animal den, and babysit my younger siblings.

At the age of 4, I began to realize my father was different from other fathers. Everything about how he talked, walked, and looked commanded a lot of respect and instilled fear in house. If my father was home, I had to find a place to hide, making sure he didn’t see my face. I never heard any kind words from him. Every day, he told me he wished I was dead. And to him, I deserved nothing good in life. His words cut through my heart and spirit to the point where I began to believe I was good for nothing, less than animals as he’d say. The reality of poverty told me that, but it was always worse to hear it from my own father.

In addition to verbal abuse, he often hit us and denied us food. Worst of all was watching my mother beaten daily. She tried so hard to protect us and intervene, but she didn’t have power in the face of his wrath. I never looked forward to tomorrow because I always knew the abuse of today would return the next day.

As I grew older, the abuse became worse and it was clear to me that any day could be my last. He was, at some point, going to take my life. One night, when I was 10 years old, I remember my father sending me out to get cigarettes. It was late into the night. On my way back, it was pouring rain and the cigarettes got destroyed. I knew that if I returned home, I would have to endure a severe beating and I was terrified. So, instead of coming home, I decided to run away.

I had never been more than 20 miles away from my village. I walked to the bus station and asked one of the women there, ‘Which bus goes the farthest?’ I knew I could never go back home, but I also knew that if my dad got hold of me, my life was over. I needed to find a place where he could never find me, so there I went, with no shoes, one t-shirt on my body, one old sweater, and a pair of shorts. At just 10 years old, I ventured into the unknown world all alone.

When the bus stopped, I found myself in the largest city in Uganda, Kampala, over 300 miles away from home. I was scared to death. They spoke a different language and life there was busy. In my village, I saw about one car a day, but here, there were hundreds of cars and the commotion was ceaseless. I quickly realized there was no turning back. So, I found other kids who lived on the streets and learned how to survive. I learned that offering free labor for buyers and sellers of produce was my best bet.

Working hard had always been in my DNA, so it was easy for me to do this. As street kids, we knew how to make ends meet. It was easiest to steal a few items of food in small amounts so people wouldn’t notice. At the end of the day, we would gather all the stolen food we had collected and roasted them over a fire once the city went to sleep.

On one particular day, I offered labor to a family and they immediately gave me food. They gave it to me before I could even steal it. A few days later, I saw them again. At this point, I knew what car they drove, what time they came to the market, where they parked, and what produce they purchased. Little did I know that this one day would be the start of an amazing friendship that would change my life forever.

For a year and half, they consistently came to the market and provided me meals. After about a year in, they said, ‘We want to take you to school.’ I said yes, not really sure what I was agreeing to. Coming from an abusive household, I had never really learned to trust. But because they had fed me once or twice a week for such a long time, I started to believe that perhaps I really was a human after all, not an animal or piece of garbage as I’d been told time and time again. They made me feel like I had potential. I was at the lowest point in my life and they found me worthy enough to give me an opportunity to belong and be known. One other major reason why I agreed to go to school was because I was promised to be fed every day. I could not imagine a world or a place that had food for me on a daily basis. I finally agreed to go to school, not because I wanted to be anything, but because of the promise of meals.

Due to the compassion of strangers, I was able to go to high school, college, and then get a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom and United States. Since then, I’ve traveled to 101 countries working with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, to advocate for children in need all over the world. The kindness of one family changed the course of my entire life and I knew in my heart that I wanted to do the same for others. I wanted to become a foster dad.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana
Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana
Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana
Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

I finally settled down in Oklahoma to start real estate business after having a job that required me to travel 80% of time. My house had two empty bedrooms, and my mind could never settle knowing there were kids in the neighborhood that needed a place to call home. But as a single man, I had no idea if they would allow me to foster.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

One day, I decided to walk into the foster agency to see if they needed volunteers. When I chatted with the lady there and she asked me if I was interested in fostering, I said, ‘Yes, but I’m a single man.’ Her immediate response was, ‘So?’ I was overjoyed! I had no idea that a single man could take on these responsibilities. That very day, I signed up to be a foster dad and just four months later, I had my first placement.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

I had devoted my life to serving children in need, but it had always been from a distance, through advocacy. This time around, I truly wanted to get my hands dirty and do exactly what that family did for me. I had no home, hope, future, and they gave me all of that and more. I knew I wanted to do the same for other kids. I knew how broken these kids were, moving from one place to the next. I had walked these roads before and surely knew I could understand what they were going through. I knew I had love and heart to be there for them.

This journey has been full of tears of joy. It has taught me not to judge the parents of these children, but to understand them. It’s been comforting knowing that I’m there for their kids as they sort their lives out. I thought reunifying kids to their parents was going to be easy, but it truly left my heart shattered to pieces. Still, in the end, I am so happy to see these children reunited with their parents that love them. It’s always the greatest joy to get that phone call a week in, a month in, or on birthdays to remind me what impact I’ve made on their lives.

It has not been an easy journey, especially when my placements have been with kids between 2-5 years old. Having an extra pair of eyes would have been helpful, but I have learned to do my best as a single dad.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

It’s definitely been a challenge. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere without the kids since I have no one else to watch them for me. I’m always on my toes from the time they get up to the time they go to bed. I quickly learned how to prioritize my time, only doing things like showering, shaving, and making the bed after the kids have eaten and gone to sleep. There’s never time for this during the day.

In training, we were taught not read too much into the behaviors, but rather find the root cause of it and what triggers some of their trauma. This requires a lot of patience and learning. Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel, but when I think of what they have gone through it always calms me down and reminds me that there is light at the end of the tunnel. After all, this was me at one point. Longing to be loved and cared for. Longing for the basic needs in life.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

Each child comes with different behaviors and there was no warning as to when or how that time bomb would go off. I was always okay if these massive tantrums went off while at home, but not in the store, in school, or at the restaurant. People who don’t know anything about you or your kid always look at you like you’re the worst parent. At first, it bothered me. But after my third child, I thought, ‘Well, this is what you get. No apologies.’ I knew I no longer had to feel guilty about things I couldn’t control.

These kids have gone through what most adults have not gone through in an entire lifetime. They are all looking for someone to understand them, someone to hear them out, someone to comprehend their behaviors when they have no idea how to control or describe them. I find that most of the time you don’t have to understand them. You just have to love them as who they are and, in doing so, they let us know what they are feeling and how we can help them. It’s a beautiful thing.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

Recently, I went through with the full adoption process for my oldest son. It’s been a whole different journey with different emotions. On one side, it’s hard to know that my child has been rejected over and over by his own family and other families. It’s hard to imagine how that has affected his mind and emotions. But on the other side, it’s a blessing knowing he is mine forever. That despite the messy journey ahead of us, I will be there to pick up the pieces with kindness and love.

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

Most people say he is lucky to have me, but I believe I’m the one lucky to have him. He’s shown me how to love and care best and how to set my priorities right in life.

Being a foster dad has truly taught me to not judge until I understand and honor the connections foster children have with their biological parents no matter the circumstances. After having strangers love me, give me opportunities, a home, and show me I had potential in life, I knew it was also my calling. To make others feel known, heard, and, above all, remind them that their parents cared for them as much as they could. To heal and bridge the gap while the rest falls into place. To love unconditionally.”

Courtesy of Peter Habyarimana

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Peter Habyarimana of Charlotte, North Carolina. You can follow his journey on Instagram here and Facebook here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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