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Genocide Took His Parents, Now St. Olaf Gives Him Hope

NORTHFIELD, Minn. (WCCO) -- In the baggage claim of MSP International Airport, balloons, signs and nervous anticipation greeted a young man with a simple dream. At 21, Norbert Abayisenga was on his first ever flight, from his native Rwanda to Minnesota.

"Welcome, we're so excited to have you here," said an overjoyed Audrey Furman.

Furman was among the group of greeters forming the adoptive family of this soon-to-be international college student.

Abayisenga was born in Rwanda in 1992. Two years later, genocide began devastating his homeland and ripping apart families, including his own.

At such a tender age, Abayisenga had more pain and heartbreak than a person could imagine.

"During the genocide I lost my mother at the age of two," Norbert said.

The family had fled to the perceived safety of the Congo where late one night their refugee camp was attacked by rebels, killing Norbert's mother.

His father and two siblings later returned to Rwanda in 1997 when it appeared things had settled down. But sadly, at age seven, Norbert's father was killed, leaving him and his older siblings orphaned. They bounced between relatives for a short while before landing in an orphanage.

Amazingly, Norbert beat the odds after being enrolled in the New Hope Homes Sonshine school for Rwandan orphans.

Former Twin Cities advertising executive Donna Wiederkehr befriended the school in Rwanda where she soon met Norbert.

"Norbert was number one in his class, his graduating class," Wiederkehr said. "We're very proud of him, and he was [the] one that was selected for this just amazing, life-changing opportunity."

Wiederkehr saw the young man's promise and went to work to secure him a brighter future. She mentioned his plight to a former colleague, Harvin Furman who is a St. Olaf alum.

Furman quickly contacted acquaintances at the college to explain how the young man would be perfectly suited for the Northfield college.

Michael Kyle is St. Olaf's vice president for enrollment and college relations and is credited with helping arrange a scholarship for Norbert. The school has been working hard to expand its commitment to attract more international students.

"I think Norbert will be a better person for having been at St. Olaf," he said. "But I think even more important, our students will become better people because of their time with Norbert."

Abayisenga is learning to use a computer for the very first time. He says it's crucial in these first days of the semester because his class schedule and list of textbooks are all online.

But thanks to Boston roommate, Matt Ferguson, he's catching on quickly.

Much of what Norbert has in his dorm was donated by total strangers. Wiederkehr posted an appeal on Facebook asking her friends for their support. The outpouring of help has been overwhelming – backpack, shoes, clothes and simple toiletries now fill Norbert's small dorm room.

He literally came to American with little more than desire - the wish to become a nurse and help others in need.

"My life has been changed because of the life of very many people, so I want to make sure that my life is also effective in other people's life," Norbert said.

So for the next four years St. Olaf campus will be his home. Here, it's more than just one young man working towards a college education. Norbert's is a story to inspire both strangers and his new found college peers, this student of hardship -- lifting the hopes of humanity.

"The first week has been amazing," Abayisenga said. "And thanks to all [the] people who have made it possible."

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