Rwandan teen to return home with new smile
After three months in the United States, Jean Claude Nshimyimana hasn’t picked up much English, but he’s got the most important words down.
And he’s mastered “I love you,” which he says easily and frequently to “Mama” and “Papa,” the Bay Area man and woman who have been looking after him since he came to their house from Rwanda in November.
Jean Claude, 16, was brought to the United States for surgeries to correct a cleft palate and other significant facial disfigurements that had made him an outcast in his village near the city of Butare, about 100 miles from the capital.
He arrived in the Bay Area a quiet and reserved teenager - always with a hood pulled up over his head to hide his face, staring at his feet, reluctant even to let doctors examine him closely.
Now, after two surgeries to repair his nose and mouth, he’s an outgoing kid with a quick smile. Laughing a little, he says in English that he’s “very handsome.”
“Right after his first surgery he asked for French fries and Coke,” said Marsha Summers, Jean Claude’s “Mama,” with a laugh. “He’s grown 3 inches and gained 11 pounds since he’s been here. He likes to eat. A lot.”
Jean Claude returns to Rwanda on Wednesday [today], almost three months to the day after he arrived November 9, 2011. In that time he’s had two surgeries - the first to repair the cleft palate, the second to reshape his nose, which was so badly disfigured that it was almost flat to his face and he had only one nostril.
Don Comfort, Summers’ friend and “Papa” to Jean Claude, first met the boy in 2006, when Comfort was visiting Rwanda as part of an aid group called Africa Missionary Alliance. He saw Jean Claude, then 11, coming for a church service and was immediately drawn to help the boy.
So Comfort took a photo of his face and sent it to Dr. Roy Kim, a San Francisco plastic surgeon and a longtime friend of Comfort and Summers. Kim knew that the surgeries to repair Jean Claude’s face wouldn’t be especially difficult, but treating the boy in Rwanda was out of the question - he’d need special equipment that wasn’t available there, for starters.
It took five years to work out logistics, and as it turned out, bringing Jean Claude to the United States would be the least expensive option. Summers was willing to house Jean Claude and a chaperone. Kim offered to waive his surgical fees, and he persuaded a team of anesthesiologists, nurses and other specialists to volunteer, too. California Pacific Medical Center provided the equipment and facilities for free.
“There was no doubt about him staying with us. That was a no-brainer,” Comfort said. “And Dr. Kim just said, ‘If you can bring him here, I will see to it there are no expenses.’ And he did. He grabbed it and ran with it.”
Exploring the U.S.
Between surgeries, Jean Claude has spent most of his time in the United States learning about - and wildly embracing - American culture. He’s been to Disneyland and Hearst Castle, he’s seen aquariums and zoos, and he’s been to the Golden Gate Bridge more times than Comfort or Summers can count.
He loves television - Monty Python and MTV are favorites - and playing with a handheld video game player borrowed from a friend. And he’s pretty much always listening to an iPod Shuffle, filled with gospel music and songs from the Asante Children’s Choir.
He’s also very affectionate, especially by American teenage-boy standards. He likes to hold hands and to snuggle up to the adults near him. Kim, the plastic surgeon, said it was odd at first to break down some of the traditional American patient-doctor barriers - but he enjoys that Jean Claude is so warm and obvious with his appreciation.
“The first time I put my hand on him, I felt like he really needed it,” Summers said. “I got the feeling he hadn’t had much affection at home.”
So many of the foods he now loves he’d never even heard of in Rwanda, where his daily diet consisted almost entirely of potatoes, beans and a root stew - all foods that he grew himself, on the land where he lived with his grandmother.
Jean Claude’s mother died a week after he was born, and his father is in prison for his participation in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Jean Claude has never met his father, but he hopes to someday.
When he returns to Rwanda next week, Jean Claude won’t be going back to the same village where he was raised.
Instead, he’ll live in a town 2 miles away, with an attorney friend who has promised to look after Jean Claude and make sure he goes to school. Before, when Jean Claude was so badly disfigured, he’d often skip school to avoid taunting by his classmates. Now, Jean Claude says, he’s determined to get an education, but he recognizes it will be difficult.
“He has a lot of concerns about going back,” said his interpreter and chaperone, James Karegeya, who traveled with Jean Claude from Rwanda. “Everything’s changed for him now.”
Hoping for a return
But he’s got extra motivation to study - Summers and Comfort have promised to bring him back if Jean Claude can learn enough English to stay without a chaperone. And he’d very much like to return to “Mama” and “Papa,” Jean Claude said.
“They are the ones who have helped me live a better life,” he said, holding Summers’ hand as they sat around the dinner table. “She buys me food, she has given me a good place to sleep, she’s doing everything for me. And Don has helped me very much.
“The fact that I’m in this house and living a better life, that’s why I’m calling them ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa.’ “
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Contact email: eallday[at]sfchronicle.com.