DARIEN – Standing among hundreds of other displaced children, an orphan received something in a shoebox that was foreign to him in his home country of Rwanda.
He said it was in the shape of a “J,” red and white, didn’t feel good or smell good – two of the senses tests he did to all things unknown at the age of 7.
“The next thing you have to do is put it in your mouth to see if it’s sweet and that was my very first time eating a candy cane,” said Alex Nsengimana to a large crowd Saturday at Four Corners Community Church in Darien. “It tasted good, but I wish I would’ve known to take the plastic off.”
To many, a candy cane is just a common treat, but when Nsengimana tasted the minty delight for the first time, it would mark one of the greatest days in his life in more than a year.
Nsengimana is a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Africa, in which members of the Tutsis population were slaughtered by the Hutus in central east Africa. While he may have been lucky to escape, his grandmother and uncle were not – they were killed in front of him.
“There wasn’t any reason they shouldn’t have killed us because they wanted to wipe out the young generation,” Nsengimana said. “That was their goal, and they wanted to wipe away anyone who could provide for the family.”
Nsengimana was forced to grow up fast – he was only 6 at the time. Though he had siblings to help, he had to rely on luck and his faith, which he said came to him one day during a time of escalating violence when he got separated from his family and slipped in something that would save his life.
“In the process of falling, I realize a bullet has just missed my head,” he said. “I look down, and it was a cow pie.”
Nsengimana then went to an orphanage for several years, which is where he would receive that momentous candy cane. It was included among several other items in a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization.
Items in each shoebox include toys, hygiene products, school supplies and candy. It was a box that Nsengimana said changed his life.
“We were so excited and I can remember when they said we’d have to wait until they passed out all of them because we were going to open them together,” he said. “Five minutes felt like five hours.”
Outreach Pastor Dave Schubert has traveled twice to Rwanda, most recently in 2012 for mission trips. He said the country is still recovering from the 1994 genocide and one of the biggest issues is dealing with reconciliation.
“There were hundreds of thousands of criminals who overflowed the jails,” Schubert said. “Now Rwanda as a nation is trying to figure out how do you bring those people back into society and how do you get people like Alex to go and give forgiveness.”
This past March, Nsengimana did just that as he traveled back to Rwanda to visit the prison where the man who murdered his family was held and he forgave him. That man received Nsengimana with tears and joy, and it’s Nsengimana’s hope that others in Rwanda will experience reconciliation.
The now 25-year-old hopes to return to Rwanda and start a church.
“The country is making great strides and it’s really incredible to see what they’ve done,” Schubert said.