Jeannette's story of survival began long before last January, when the 22-year-old University of Washington student, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, was assaulted in the University District by a stranger with a hammer.
Jeannette was attacked in the University District one morning last January by a stranger with a hammer. She cried for help, but no cars stopped. She banged on the doors of houses, but no one answered.
So, as she had done so many times before in her life, the 22-year-old University of Washington student from Rwanda took care of herself.
With a fractured skull and cheekbone, she got back in her car, drove back to campus and motioned to a parking attendant for help.
As a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Jeannette has endured far more in 22 years than most people will in a lifetime — the loss of her family and a childhood spent in refugee camps, shelters and on the street. Through it all, she has remained determined to make a new life for herself and, above all else, get an education.
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After the January assault, Jeannette was hospitalized for six weeks and had to drop out of school for a quarter. Nightmares and headaches continue to plague her, but she went to summer school to catch up and will be back on track when fall quarter starts Sept. 24.
A burst of media attention followed last winter’s assault, but not much was reported about the student herself, in part because she shied away from the publicity. Jeannette is soft-spoken but shows a different side of herself to those she has come to trust. Her friends say her sense of humor can be contagious.
She continues to repress some details of her life in Africa, but enough time has gone by that now she is trying to open up about her past — and about what happened that awful January morning.
Because police have yet to find her attacker, she doesn’t want her last name or photograph published.
Before the genocide
Jeannette is from Kibungo in the eastern province of Rwanda.
She lived with her mother, her father and three brothers. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a government worker and businessman.
“I remember living with my family and being happy before the genocide,” Jeannette says. “I liked my school.”
Jeannette’s mother was a Tutsi, her father a Hutu. Because mixed marriages were frowned upon in the clash between those two ethnic groups, both parents would have been targets in the genocide.
On the day in 1994 when she last saw her family, Jeannette was 8 years old. She and her mother were home alone, and she went outside to play. She had heard there were refugees traveling through the area, and in her curiosity to know what a refugee was, she wandered into town.
In the chaos there, she was swept up in a crowd and placed on a truck. Not until the truck was miles away at the Tanzanian border did anyone realize her family wasn’t with her. Jeannette became one of the first refugee children at a makeshift camp in Tanzania, where thousands of other children would join her in the coming days.
“I slept on the ground and ate nothing but porridge,” Jeannette says. “Many refugee kids got sick, me included.”
She remained in the camp for at least two years before returning to Rwanda to look for her family. Mary Erickson, Jeannette’s mentor and friend in Seattle, said that how Jeannette made it back to Kibungo is unclear, but when she got there another family was living in her house. She is convinced her loved ones are dead and that, like many of the hundreds of thousands killed in the genocide, their bodies have not been found.
Erickson believes Jeannette was living in the streets when she met an old business associate of her father’s, who took her in for a time to live with his family. But without the prospect of education, she became more depressed, Erickson said.
The man gave Jeannette money to get to Kenya, where she lived for years in shelters, on the streets and in orphanages.
In Nairobi, when she was about 16, she met an American nun who was moved by her desire to be educated. Sister Roxanne Schares worked with American immigration officials to help Jeannette gain status as a war refugee in the United States.
Jeannette downplays any reasons why Schares might have felt compelled to help a bright, determined girl.
“I don’t know why they chose me.”
New struggles in Seattle
Jeannette was 17 when she arrived in Seattle in 2004.
She spoke no English but managed to communicate some in French and Swahili. She was placed in the foster-care system and enrolled in a school for non-English-speaking immigrants before attending Rainier Beach and then Garfield high schools.
During her senior year at Garfield, she aged out of foster care and moved into a teen shelter in the U District. To support herself, she juggled numerous part-time jobs, missing out on traditional high-school activities like football games and dances.
“I worked in food services, I worked at the mall, I worked at McDonald’s and I worked at a retirement home,” says Jeannette. “I didn’t get to socialize much in high school. That was my life. That was it.”
Despite the language barrier, she graduated from Garfield with a 3.6 grade-point average. It was during her junior year at Garfield that she met her mentor, Erickson, through Treehouse, a local nonprofit that connects foster children with mentors. Erickson helped Jeannette obtain housing, jobs, credit cards and insurance, and apply for scholarships and to colleges.
“She had a lot of hard knocks thrown her way,” said Barry Goren, director of the Leadership 1000 scholarship, an award that Jeannette received. “She was sort of plopped down here.”
Now, Jeannette has found a family in the Ericksons, she says.
“I love to watch Disney movies with her,” said the family’s 13-year-old son, Max. “She’s become, well, not traditionally a sister, because sometimes, brothers and sisters don’t get along. We have the optimal relationship.”
Last year, in her first quarter at the UW, Jeannette slowly began making new friends.
One was Xe Chang, who was in her English as a Second Language (ESL) class. The two became shopping buddies.
“I like to go shopping with my friends because it is more fun if you are in a group,” Jeannette wrote in a class portfolio. “Sometime I shop too much, but I do find the shopping gives me an emotional release.”
Chang noticed that Jeannette would speak up in class, was always eager to learn, and had a sense of humor.
“She tried to teach us to say hello in different ways in her language, and we can’t say the accent, so we just start laughing,” Chang said.
When winter quarter started in January, Chang expected to see Jeannette again in their ESL class.
“For two days of class, she wasn’t there,” Chang said. “Then a girl in my class told me, ‘Hey, you know that girl who was assaulted? It was her.’ “
The assault occurred around 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 8.
“It was horrifying,” said Erickson, who rushed to the hospital and found Jeannette on a gurney, bleeding. She suffered a fractured skull and cheekbone, cuts and psychological trauma. She underwent plastic surgery for her cheekbone.
Visitors streamed in to see her — former teachers, classmates, co-workers from her many jobs, roommates, and the president and provost of the UW. Because so many wanted to help financially, Treehouse set up a fund that paid part of her medical bills and helps support her still.
The support was “overwhelming and yet wonderful for Jeannette, and no doubt helped her to a speedier recovery,” Erickson said. “She’s quite a resilient person, and she inspires me every day.”
Hard at work again
Jeannette’s schedule is now as busy as it’s ever been.
On top of school (she studies engineering) and work (she’s an assistant at Harborview Medical Center), she meets with a language tutor and gets counseling for post-traumatic-stress disorder.
“When I get home, I feel tired,” Jeannette says.
On the weekends, she goes home to the Ericksons and does her laundry. She has joined them on family vacations.
She is working to become an American citizen, and is grateful for everything people have done for her.
At the same time, she wants to make her own way.
“I want to learn how to … become a strong person,” she says. The first step is to graduate from college, she says. The second is to get a good job. “Those two will give me a way to success, and to make better life in future.”
Sometimes “it’s too hard,” she says matter-of-factly. “But that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how life is. You have to work hard.”
Arla Shephard: 206-515-5632 or email@example.com