“All of Us Together”
When Joshua Ruzibuka isn’t working his job at Madison Beach Hotel, he usually can be found helping other people.
In fact, after he got his first job at the hotel as a dishwasher in The Wharf restaurant, the first thing he did was to start helping other refugees get jobs, too. If they needed clothes, he put clothes on their backs. If they needed food, he showed them how to shop at the grocery store and, if they didn’t have enough at checkout, he pitched in. If they didn’t have a ride home from work, Ruzibuka would drive home to New Haven after his shift ended, set his alarm before he went to sleep, and then drive back in to Madison at 1 or 2 a.m. to pick up his friends.
His efforts drew the attention and respect of his co-workers, his supervisor, and the family that owns Madison Beach Hotel—who saw that he was teaching his new friends not just work skills but also life skills—and they were inspired to help him help others. While he was helping others, Ruzibuka challenged himself to learn new kitchen skills and worked his way up to a line cook.
When he’s not working, or helping other refugees, Ruzibuka, 28, can usually be found at home on Howard Avenue in New Haven, with his wife Sandra Kasonga, 29, and their two children, thinking about what he wants to say to the congregation at the First Baptist Church on Edwards Avenue in New Haven, where he often fills in as a preacher. Ruzibuka preaches in both Swahili and English, with the help of his wife, to the growing and vibrantly multi-cultural congregation. As 2019 drew to a close, sitting with his family in their warm, cozy, second-floor walk-up, filled with the smells and sounds of a delicious meal being prepared—Ruzibuka wondered what to say in his next sermon.
Ruzibuka decided he wants to tell his fellow worshipers that they should not give up. That they should forget the past. They should work hard, count on God, and look to the future.
Ruzibuka will speaking both from the heart and from experience.
‘She Says to Love and Help People’
By the time he was five years old, Ruzibuka had already learned many lessons from his mother, Fina Nyirampakanie, and his father, Kinyonga Ruzibuka. He learned it was important for a family, even if they came from modest means, to welcome friends as family, offering help for today and hope for tomorrow.
His mother and father also wanted all of their four children, three girls and Joshua, the youngest, to know that some people hated them, not because of anything they did but because they were considered by some to be Banyamulenge, a minority Tutsi ethnic group in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We didn’t know Tutsi,” Ruzibuka says, meaning his family thought of themselves as Congolese. Still, his parents knew their situation in the 1990s was increasingly perilous.
“My mom make us be ready for everything,” Ruzibuka says, “She says, one day me and your daddy will go away. And you will have to take care of yourself. She says to love and help people. To let all things pass. Help people. Have love. Don’t steal. Don’t fight.”
His mom also knew some people wanted a fight. She told her children that if there was a noise outside, and if that noise included angry voices, to hide under the bed.
Some Congolese Tutsis had roots in their communities going back to the 16th century, but in 1995, when Ruzibuka was about four, some Congolese politicians decided to consolidate their power by exploiting decades of simmering ethnic tensions and declaring all Banyamulenge as recent refugees, as outsiders to be despised and driven out, regardless of how long they had lived there. The hatred, following a pattern typical of genocide, begat dehumanization and demonization of the other, which exploded into more hatred, which led to killings and revenge killings and massacres.
[The next two paragraphs contain descriptions of violence that some readers may want to skip.]
When Ruzibuka was five years old, there was a noise outside and that noise included angry voices. Then there was pounding at their door. As he had been taught, he obediently hid under the bed. He laid there, quiet and terrified, listening as, first, his father was murdered. He listened as his mother and sisters were tortured—”they do what they want before they kill,” Ruzibuka says—then his mother and sisters were slaughtered.
When he came out from under the bed the next morning, he touched his mother, his father, his sisters. He saw blood. He didn’t understand. He ran out of the house, into the streets, found others who were running, and started to run with them.
‘Sometimes You Are Suffering’
He ended up just over the border in Rwanda, fending for himself, sleeping on the streets, and sneaking into garbage cans around the markets to forage for something to eat. Sometimes, when he found something to eat, other children would beat him up and take the food.
His worst moment?
It was later that year. He was still five years old, still stunned by the turn his life had taken, still living and sleeping on the streets in a strange country, having to fight for every bite he found in the garbage.
And then, “I got sick. Sick inside. Stomach sick. I was looking, who is to help me? Nobody was close to me,” he says. “Sometimes you are suffering and we don’t know who can help us.”
He survived on the streets until he was about 15 and made his way to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi. There, again, some people demonized him, this time because he was Congolese. They refused to sit next to him in church. They threatened him. He slept in a different place every night so that they could not find him and kill him.
When he was 16, weary of being shunned in church, he set up a prayer room and started his own ministry. He called it Safina Tabernacle. Safina means vessel or boat or ark. As in Noah’s Ark, he says. He called it that because it was to be an ark that floated above all the ethnic and nationality- driven violence.
“It was a room where everybody, Burundi, Rwanda, Congolese, could meet, could pray,” he says, which he did with others every weeknight, from about 6 to 8 or 9 p.m.
He became a preacher and by the time he was 19, he helped set up a place where everyone could worship on Sunday, regardless of nationality or ethnicity or skin color, called Penuel, which means the Face of God.
At church he met Kasonga. They fell in love. Both he and Kasonga went through round after round after round of interviews with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with the Malawi government, and with the United States government, seeking refugee status, a process that takes years.
One morning, he was sleeping, hidden in an obscure part of the refugee camp, and woke to the sound of people yelling his name and “Pastor! Pastor! Pastor!” He worried. What was wrong? Instead, there was a letter for him, saying he was going to the United States. He slept with the letter under his head, kept touching it to make sure it was real, and cried every time he read it, which he did many times, to make sure he was not imagining it.
Sandra Kasonga was headed to the United States, too, and left a day earlier than Ruzibuka. Ruzibuka arrived at the airport in New York on a cold March day, and, when he was offered a shower, was flabbergasted by the hot and cold running water. He wanted to live in the bathroom at the airport for the rest of his life. He was so taken with the luxury of it, he almost missed his bus to New Haven. Now, when he tells that story, he laughs.
Once he got to New Haven, he was met by some nice people who only spoke English. Ruzibuka was exhausted and it was words, words, words he did not understand and then a word he did understand, “Sandra?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” he told them. Then he knew he was in the right place.
He was reunited with Kasonga and wanted the blessing of a church so they could live together. They went from church to church, asking, but the churches charged $100, $200, or more. Then they came to the First Baptist Church. The pastor there said yes, he would bless them in marriage, and he gave Ruzibuka $5.
In return for the blessings, Ruzibuka over time invited other refugees to join them at the church. What was once a dwindling congregation, threatened with closure, is now growing, with more than 70 congregants. People who are Congolese, Burundian, and Rwandan. And, people who are American, like Ruzibuka, who became a U.S. citizen in August.
Blessed, and Sometimes Sad
Kasonga, his wife, also an orphan, says they feel blessed to be here, with their children, Elsa, six months old, and her big brother Eldad. Eldad, at five, is friendly, inquisitive, polite with a firm and confident handshake when meeting a visitor, and the exact same age his father was when his life was changed by the angry people pounding on the door.
Kasonga recently finished her degree at Gateway Community College and is looking for work as a certified nursing assistant. Having once gone hungry herself, she is happy to have food on the table. Ruzibuka remembers what it was like to fight for scraps from a garbage can and feels blessed to have a job where he can offer customers dishes that include toast points, baby watercress, cognac cream, and sashimi-grade tuna.
Yet sometimes, she says, it makes them sad to eat, thinking about how many are going without.
Her husband wants to help everyone, he says, no matter their color, their nationality, their background, whether they are friends or strangers. He wishes for a building where he can store some of what is donated because sometimes his car is so full of donations there is no room for his family. For all the time he spends helping others, he has to be reminded to relax and enjoy time with his family.
John Mathers, the general manager of Madison Beach Hotel, says those who know Ruzibuka are inspired by him, of what he’s made of his life, of his refusal to turn his misfortunes into bitterness, and of his constant willingness to volunteer to help others.
“You know, some of us might say, ‘If I win the lottery, I’m going to help everyone,’” Mathers says, standing just outside the kitchen at the hotel’s Wharf Restaurant, where Ruzibuka is about to go on shift. “But here’s Josh, and the minute he starts making money as a dishwasher, he starts to help everyone. He shows that all you need is the desire to help.”
“And heart,” says Alice Birnbaum, one of Ruzibuka’s co-workers.
“And heart,” says Mathers. “The desire, and the heart, and the willingness to just do it.”
In recognition of his work on behalf of others, Joshua Ruzibuka has been awarded the Connecticut Lodging Association Stars of the Industry Award. Madison Beach Hotel is part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, and Ruzibuka was chosen as one of Hilton’s Room 720 stories, featuring employees who are serving humanity. To find out more about his work to support children and refugees at the Dzaleka Refugee Camp, visit www.gofundme.com and search for “Vision 2020 Madison CT.” To see a YouTube video associated with his Hilton award, visit youtube.com and search for “Madison Beach Hotel “Room 702.””