A newsmaker you should know: African refugee creates electric moments with tales of survival

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Jackson Ndizeye had a tumultuous early life. He never knew his father, his mother left him to move from Burundi to his father's country of Rwanda, he lost relatives to genocide in Rwanda and he often found himself fleeing from war-torn areas.

Rather than turn his back on his difficult past, however, Mr. Ndizeye has embraced it, teaching students in the United States about Rwanda, genocide and his life in general.

He also has stayed in the U.S. after graduation from La Roche College, because, in his words, "I can do more for my people from here than I can there."

Mr. Ndizeye, 37, is matter of fact when he talks about growing up in Burundi and Rwanda. "I lived with my mother's family. I never knew my siblings until I was older. When she moved, she left me behind to represent leaving her image with them. Culturally, that was the thing to do," he said.

Mr. Ndizeye grew up during civil war in Burundi and genocide in Rwanda. One day walking home from school, he saw a man walking in front of him be killed. The man was stoned by a group stalking him.

As matters in Burundi became worse, his sister begged him to flee with her to Rwanda. Initially, he did not go, but eventually he fled with his uncle and family. "Our home was attacked the night after we moved. We would have been killed," he said.

But life in Rwanda wasn't much better. The country had just been through genocide -- a time when predominant tribes tried to wipe out other tribes.

When Mr. Ndizeye moved to Rwanda, he relocated to a private boarding school, where his sister visited, urging him to leave as the unrest in Rwanda continued.

"I told her, 'This time I am not running.' " His sister got him a letter of transfer from the ministry of education, and he changed schools. "Right after I left, the school was attacked and many of the students were killed," he said.

At his new school, Mr. Ndizeye befriended a missionary, Brother Rene Roy.

"He was a Marist brother who was able to get many of us scholarships to attend La Roche College. Because my English was better than many others, I was chosen," he said.

Mr. Ndizeye came to Pittsburgh in 2000 to study at La Roche College through Pacem In Terris, a full-scholarship program that enables students from war-torn countries to be educated at La Roche to bring change to their nations.

Mr. Ndizeye learned about wind-generated electricity from an engineer at a guest lecture in 2004, the year Rwanda was experiencing its biggest energy crisis.

After graduation, Mr. Ndizeye stayed in Pittsburgh, hoping to bring change to his country through his work here. He created Rwindalectric, a nonprofit with intentions to raise funds to introduce electricity to rural areas in Rwanda. The name Rwindalectric is a combination of Rwanda, wind and electricity.

"Since then, I have traveled to many states and spoken to many schools about Rwanda, genocide and the need for electricity. In the process, I was able to raise enough funds to purchase a wind measurement tower -- Rwanda has never had anything like it," he said.

Among the schools where Mr. Ndizeye has spoken is Shaler Area High School.

"Jackson brings his own personal history and feelings into the classroom to make things real to the students," said Ben Yeckel, Shaler Area world cultures teacher. "Even some of my toughest students have had tears in their eyes when he is done."

Having Mr. Ndizeye speak to the students, "brings an element that I can't give to the students," Mr. Yeckel said.

Mr. Ndizeye is also the custodian supervisor at Allison Park Church in Hampton.

"Pastor Jeff Leake, senior pastor, welcomed the international students from La Roche into his church," said Mr. Ndizeye. Pastor Leake has also helped Mr. Ndizeye raise funds for Rwindalectric.

Mr. Ndizeye is quick to downplay his survival of the wars and unrest in Burundi and Rwanda.

"I didn't have a strategy to survive the war -- I was just left standing," he said. "I'm not sure I am smart enough to be a survivor, but I have a brain for big ideas. I have big goals and I think I can make them happen."


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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