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A Refugee's Letters `Home'

MY husband started reading the letter as we sat down to dinner.

"Dear Greg Morning!!!" Such a happy greeting from our African friend! Jumbled with joy, weightless as the sheer paper it was written on, it seemed a buoyant contrast to his burden of living in limbo.

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I have begun to dread opening the letters from this once-radiant, intelligent, gracious young man from Rwanda, a speck of a country in mountainous central Africa that has been splintered by civil war for decades. He has become a casualty of that war.

He, Jean-Guy, has put a face - a heart, a soul - on the word refugee. News reports about suffering in other parts of the world, from Sarajevo to Somalia, have become more painful to hear. He casts a shadow on our photo album of Africa; he haunts the funny stories we tell about being charged by elephants and shaking the hand of Nelson Mandela.

He has made my easy Western life less easy.

We met Jean-Guy in Zaire last September on a hot, dusty bus that rattled and limped on its way to Zambia. From there the tall, handsome young man offered to help my husband, Greg, and me cross the border, catch a cab, find two more buses, and then buy train tickets to the capital city, Lusaka.

We couldn't have done it without him.

"I have gone this way many times," he told us. "But now I cannot go back."

He settled down in a corner of the train station where he would spend the night. Somehow we talked him into coming to eat with us and then sleeping on a sofa in our inexpensive hotel room.

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We were laden with goods: a backpack, cameras, water, fruit, books, money belts, and new outfits made of bright Zairian cloth.

He carried all his life's possessions in a blue plastic shoulder bag. Sticking up from the outside pocket was a green toothbrush, the bristles worn and bent.

But to meet him you'd see a king. "I am Tutsi," he would say, TOO-see, over and over, lifting his chin slightly, stretching his frame taller than the Africans around him, taller than my six-foot husband.

He would point with his delicate hand to the high brown forehead characteristic of his people. "The people know I am Tutsi when they see me."

Which meant: The people know I have no place to live.

Border officials looked the other way when he tried to get into Zambia without the right documents. Traveling is nearly impossible for him, but he must keep moving.

Slowly he told us his story. When he was young, he said, he watched tribal enemies murder his father. The Hutu (whom the Tutsi had dominated for decades) were wresting control of the Rwandan government. They then killed the uncle who had taken the fatherless family in. A few years later, when Jean-Guy was a teenager, the Hutu government broke into his house at night and murdered his mother. His brother fled east; he and his sister fled west to neighboring Zaire. But the Hutu hunted them there, so he move d to a small city and enrolled in university and his sister escaped to France. Two years later Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, closed the country's schools. That's when we met Jean-Guy moving to Zambia.

He says he can never (legally) return to his home country, Rwanda.

"Can you know what it is like to have no family? To have a home you can never go back to? I cannot be a man," he would say. "Of course, you are Americans. You can never know."

When we said goodbye to him in Lusaka he was on his way to Namibia to see a friend and, he hoped, to resume his university studies. Or get a job.

"I just want the chance to become a man," he said again and again. To him, that meant work, marry, and have children. He is probably just twenty. "You are a man, Greg. You must understand."

He asked us to write to him, and we urged the same.

Three months later when we got back to the United States, his first letter arrived, covered in Zambian postage. Namibia had deported him, he said, so he had returned to Zambia, penniless and alone. He was living in a refugee camp, eating once a day at 3 o'clock. Did we enjoy the rest of Africa? Could we send him clothes, food, anything? "I'm very suffer, and am become very thin than before," he wrote. "I'm very ungry."

We wrote him a letter that night, tucking in a few photographs, some self-addressed airmail envelopes, a $20 bill. How had he wound up in a refugee camp?

He wrote back to thank us. He'd bought food and vitamins with the money, he said. And he had just spent three weeks in a hospital on account of his poor health. Could we send him some clothes? "You are my brother.... You become now my parents."

We packed up a box of old jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. Greg hid money in two places. We knew mail was often stolen in Zaire, and we weren't sure about Zambia.

Greg wrote to tell him we'd be sending a box, and where we'd hidden the money. It was Christmas. The postal worker said the box would cost $50 airmail, $15 surface.

Would it get there in time if surface delivery took three months? Would he still be at the refugee camp? Maybe we'd better just send him more cash, we thought, so we did.

But Jean-Guy never got it. He wrote to ask why we weren't writing. "If you don't write me, who can write me again. My sister & my brother don't know where I am and I have lost their adresses so I'm alone here, you are only my best friends."

Our letters weren't getting through.

He asked where the box was, and began to suspect the camp officials of stealing. So he found another place to receive mail, his "new church" - the Unification Church - and he needed $200 so he could go to Korea to get a "blessing" from the leader, Rev. Sun Myung Moon. After that, the church promised to give him a room and a job. Could we wire him the money?

If he couldn't go to Korea, he said, maybe he would go back to Rwanda and become a guerilla in the civil war against the Hutu. "If I will die is no problem is not the end of the world because here in Zambia the new government doesn't want the people from other countries and then here in Zambia I do nothing, no school, no job so why can I stay here.... I live in a tent like animal."

Or maybe he could move to Canada or the United States. He'd heard of Africans working as "servants" to businessmen for a few years in exchange for passage to North America. Could we find him a sponsor?

My husband raised his eyebrows over the "servant" idea. We tried to imagine our Tutsi friend here in America - bustling, neon, concrete, costly America. It's not the promised land much of the world thinks it is. Was there nothing we could do?

Greg pulled out the deck of cards and began to shuffle. People on the train stared; card playing was not popular among the Zambians. Jean-Guy reached to take control of the deck; he would show us how to shuffle. His nimble hands moved quickly, the cards whizzing past one another like feathers in flight.

We taught him to play gin rummy. He learned quickly and won easily. Then he wanted to teach us his favorite game; we recognized it as a form of crazy eights. Again he won easily.

"Oh, but what I really want to teach you is another game," he said. "But I think it is too complicated." His crisp English was tinged with French from living so long in Zaire.

"Go ahead," my husband encouraged.

Jean-Guy scowled. "No, maybe it is too hard to explain."

Eager to learn a new game, we persisted. "Just show us and we'll try to figure it out," Greg urged.

One card at a time Jean-Guy laid them down - red, red, black; red, black, black. The high card always won. Greg and I looked at each other. Wasn't this "war?" We laughed.

"Your other game is more difficult," Greg told him.

Puzzled, he cocked his chin to one side and wiped the sweat from his high forehead. "Okay. We will play that one!" He shuffled and started to deal.

I pulled out my camera to take a picture. A soldier grabbed my arm and said something I couldn't understand.

Jean-Guy started to argue with the soldier, to protect his new friends. He could speak two Zambian languages in addition to his native Rwandan tongue, plus French, English, Swahili, and whatever other African languages he hadn't bothered to tell us about.

I told him not to worry about the photo. We'd grown accustomed to not taking pictures in Zaire, and we could go without them in Zambia. My mental snapshot caught the two of them laughing, looking over their new hands, sharing an orange soda that stained their lips, as the train rumbled under the bright midday sun across the cracked desert floor dotted with termite mounds the size of the natives' mud huts.

A few months after Christmas I came across the box of clothes we'd packaged for Jean-Guy, taped and ready to go.

"Let's send it," my husband suggested. "Maybe he'll get it."

"But he won't remember where we hid the money," I protested.

Greg's eyes opened wide. "Believe me: He'll remember."

I sent the package surface and waited.

Another letter arrived asking for money to visit Rev. Moon. We shook our heads over dinner and prayed. Newspaper reports said southern Africa was experiencing the worst drought of the century, affecting all the countries we'd visited - Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa - hurting the new friends we had made, black and white families who had opened their homes and hearts to us.

Then good news: Jean-Guy wrote that he'd met an American man tutoring in the refugee camp who told him the Rev. Moon and the Unification Church "had a bad reputation in America." Was this true? he wondered.

Maybe he wouldn't go to Korea after all.

Greg and I smiled at each other and buttered our corn. Still, we wished there was something else we could do.

Before starting our journey to Africa, we rented movies filmed in various African locations. My favorite was "King Solomon's Mines," the 1951 remake with Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and most impressive, the African "Watusi" tribe - a tall, elegant people with high, brown foreheads beneath exquisite, asymmetrical hairdos. They danced wildly in their exotic attire. What a beautiful people, the movie seemed to say. Ah, the Technicolor romance of Hollywood's rose-colored lenses.

Our real-life Tutsi had fared far worse. Once Jean-Guy spotted a tall, slender woman across a crowded bus terminal in Zambia. She had the same high forehead, wide cheekbones, slender nose, and lean appendages he had, and stood six feet tall. "She is Tutsi," he said gravely, as if he knew her struggle, her fate.

"Dear Greg Morning!!!" began the letter we opened at dinner last night. His return address shows he is still at the United Nations refugee camp in Lusaka.

"I'm very happy to write you this short letter because I wanna tell you that, today I have received that package of clothing

- Two t. shirts, Red (Adidas), Khaki with lines

- Blue jeans with 10 US$ in small pocket

- Shoes with 10 US$ inside

- teeth brush

- Colgate

- bubble gum

- Two pairs of socks & black belt & pens

Thank you for sending these things and I can't never forget you in my life.... I kiss you two, J'Guy"

It is now our turn to write. We'd rather send a job, or the means to finish university, or a family, or more money. But for now a letter will have to do.

Meantime we can hope.

Hope he's eating, hope the leather belt will hold up the blue jeans, hope the teethbrush finds food to clear away, hope someone at the refugee camp has a deck of cards.

Hope that the fine young man we met a year ago has the opportunity to grow into the man he wants so to become.

But most of all we hope - and pray - that the civil wars blasting holes in families around the world will someday cease.

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