On April 7, 2017, Lesley CAB hosted Daniel Trust. Speaking to a small group in Alumni Hall, Mr. Trust shared his remarkable story of going from being a refugee in Zambia, to an advocate for refugees, low-income, and LGBT youth in America.
His story was compelling, as he recalled incidents from his past. “We need to pray, something terrible is happening.” These were the words spoken by the parents of 5 year old Daniel Trust at his home in Rwanda. It was the first week of April in 1994. An airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira had just been shot down while attempting to land at Kigali airport, killing both. President Habyarimana was Hutu–the majority ethnic group of the country. While the assassins are not known, Hutu extremists blamed the incident on the Tutsi minority.
Shortly after the downing of the plane, calls were made by Hutu extremists to exterminate the “Tutsi cockroach,” and the family of Daniel Trust was extremely worried about what the future would bring. Mr. Trust was the youngest of eight children, and considered to be Tutsi, but his parents were in a mixed marriage. His father was Hutu; his mother was Tutsi. Neither survived.
“There are many religions in Rwanda. There are Catholics, there are Protestants, there are Seventh-Day Adventists, there are Muslims, many religions. Many people looked to find sanctuary at their houses of worship,” Daniel recalls. “We went to our church and stayed there. After a few days, a group of people with machetes came and asked to see everyone’s ID’s, which included whether you were a Hutu or Tutsi. When it was my mother’s turn she was crying and begging, but they beat her and killed her.” Despite being Hutu, Mr. Trust’s father was also killed for being married to a Tutsi, and two of his sisters were killed as well. Their house was broken into, and after all the valuables were stolen from it, it was burned to the ground, leaving Mr. Trust with nothing.
“I could not understand it,” he said. “We were all black. In some countries in Africa, there are dozens of local languages. But in Rwanda everyone speaks one language–Kinyarwanda. So to go through what I did, and to have the last image of my mother be what it was,” he paused sadly for a moment before concluding, “It was just terrible.”
During the genocide, Mr. Trust was fortunate enough to be sheltered by a Hutu neighbor and eventually fled across the border to the Congo, where he reunited with his surviving siblings. The genocide ended in July when control of the country was taken by a group of Tutsi rebels known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Although only three months had gone by, the genocide had resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 people, displaced millions, and devastated the country.
After the slaughter had ceased, Mr. Trust returned to Rwanda. He performed poorly in school, was frequently bullied by his peers, and later moved to Zambia with his brother. But life was still not easy. “I did chores for my brother and his wife. And she whipped me if I washed the dishes, but didn’t do it the way she liked. I could never do anything right. I prayed for an angel to save me.” Despite his troubles, Mr. Trust remained optimistic that life would get better and that one day he could move to the United States.
Mr. Trust sums of the process of coming to America in a single phrase: Very painful, and it took forever. “To get asylum I first had to declare myself to the UN, and then I had to go through several medical tests to make sure that I wasn’t bringing any diseases into America, and you have to go through several interviews, and it was a very long process. I’ve known people who it took ten years to go through.”
But after four long years, he was finally able to get a green card, and in 2005 at 15 years old, moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut to live with his sister. He could not speak English, and had few possessions with him. But he was happy to be reunited with his sister and hoped for a better future.
When asked if living in America was what he expected it to be he grinned and shook his head. “Not quite. What I knew about this country was from watching MTV and the Kardashians and stuff like that. I expected my sister to be living in a big house and driving a fancy car.” He laughed. “This was not the case.”
Determined to make the most of his new life, Mr. Trust pushed himself to work hard. He learned English. He became captain of his volleyball team, helped to design his high school’s yearbook, and eventually became vice president of his senior class, and graduated high school. Even though Bridgeport was low-income, Mr. Trust considered it wonderful.
“There was not much, but it was more than I had in my previous life. My school served both breakfast and lunch. People complain now, because the food in the cafeteria has changed to be healthier, but I thought it was great.” He got a job as bank Teller and remembered being excited to make $11 an hour.
Five years after arriving, he received his U.S. citizenship in 2010 and graduated Southern Connecticut State University as a business major. “I like to say that I am American. For the first 15 years of my life I didn’t belong anywhere. I do not identify as being Tutsi: I am a Rwandan-American,” Mr. Trust said, a prideful smile on his face. “For the first time I had a sense of identity and belonging.”
But although life improved for Mr. Trust in America, things were far from perfect. When he was a sophomore, he became aware that he was gay. He recalls praying that he would change, and becoming frustrated when he didn’t. “For many people in Rwanda and Zambia, and even in America, being gay is a crime, and I was ashamed of myself. I feared people would not want to hear my story because I was gay.” But this all changed one day, when working at his job at TD bank.
“I saw an article on the internal intranet at work that it was National Coming Out Day. So I went to my coworkers and pointed this out to them, and then told them I was gay, and later made a post on Facebook about it. They thought I was joking,” he laughed, remembering their reaction. But he turned grim for a moment.
“Not everyone took this well. One of my sisters disowned me, and I said ‘fine, I disown you too.’ We are on good terms now, but I know many people who got thrown out of their houses or even committed suicide because they were gay and were ashamed of it. Not everyone had the same confidence I did.”
Mr. Trust expressed sadness at the stereotype of immigrants coming to America bringing crime and stealing jobs. “We contribute a lot to this country. We are regular people just like everyone else,” he said, recounting the story of buying himself a cake from Stop & Shop to celebrate buying his first condo in 2013.
Mr. Trust now runs the Daniel Trust Foundation, which helps students from low income areas to prepare for college, and also advocates for the rights of the LGBT community. He has spoken to several high schools and colleges, and was a guest speaker at the 2016 Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations Conference in Hong Kong. He also runs a YouTube show called “the Daniel Trust Show.”
Despite growing up in the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, being abused and spending years as a refugee with no identity, Mr. Trust was able to keep a smile throughout his presentation, and continued to be optimistic. “You have to create your own happiness. I have so many reasons to be miserable, and reasons to blame others. But I use my experiences to move ahead and pay it forward. I can’t change my past, so I ask myself ‘What do I do now? Do I get angry, or learn to make an impact?”
After telling the students present he would be happy to give out hugs and take selfies afterwards (and after applauding his presentation, many audience members took him up on his offer) he ended his presentation offering one final piece of advice:
“We’re all going through something–learn to make peace and go on. No blaming, no excuses, work hard, and ask for help if you need it.”
To learn more about Daniel Trust or the Daniel Trust Foundation, go to http://www.danieltrustfoundation.org