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South of Forgiveness

Thordis Elva. Credits - Oli Hardar  
Thordis Elva is an author, a playwright, a screen-writer, an entrepreneur and a motivational speaker.  Her recent book, "South of Forgiveness" is a non-fiction narrative that talks about the story of how she was raped at the age of 16 by her first boyfriend, Tom Stranger, who co-authored the book with her. Following a TED Talk with Tom in October 2016, Thordis has, since, addressed worldwide audiences through her book and a Q&A that offers up answers about her story, the crafting of their talk and why the two of them do not prescribe their actions as a path for others to follow. Here is Thordis' story in her own words.

I was sixteen, and I was living in Iceland, which is my home country. I fell in love for the first time. The boy that I fell in love with was this Australian exchange student who charmed me with his worldly ways and exotic accent and I was swept off my feet and I had this, I guess, typical teenage romance that was consensual and lovely, and lasted a few weeks. He met my friends and my family and it all progressed in a fairly normal and consensual manner, and romantic in every sense of the word, until the night of the Christmas dance.

Thordis as a 16 Year Old, when she met Tom
I was high on this newfound maturity of mine, feeling like a young woman for the first time in my life, now that I had a boyfriend take me to the dance. So I felt it was only appropriate to take yet another step into the realm of adulthood and try drinking rum for the first time that night. But that backfired because I became very ill. My body was not equipped to handle alcohol at that tender age. So, instead of enjoying myself at the ball, I spent that entire evening in the bathroom, convulsively vomiting and started drifting in and out of consciousness. To my surprise and relief, Tom appeared to rescue me from that situation. I was grateful that I had this 'knight in shining armour' to take me home. I also remember feeling frustrated by my incapacitated state because I couldn’t move a limb or utter a word. So, I wasn’t effective in assisting him in any way when he picked me up from the floor. I couldn’t utter a word of thanks when he got me out of this predicament. He took me in a taxi, took me home. My head was clearing up really fast but my body didn’t follow. When we got back to my place, these feelings I had of gratitude and relief for him, took a very sharp twist to horror and betrayal as he proceeded to take off my clothes, and basically have his way with me, and rape me, for what turned out to be two hours. And the reason why I even know that is because the way I lay in bed, my head was turned toward the alarm clock. What I could do for the duration of it to stay sane and to focus on something outside of my body and this pain that I was experiencing was to count seconds. I’ve spoken to many survivors who have described similar coping mechanisms – some recounted telephone numbers to themselves in their head, some went through an alphabetical order of various concepts to focus on something outside of the horrific event they are experiencing.

After that night, our relationship came to an abrupt end. We went our separate ways without exchanging a word about this dark deed that had preceded our breakup. I could not put into context what had happened to me for various reasons. First of all, I was a sixteen year old kid and hadn’t given much of a thought to sexual violence, and secondly, the little bit that I did know about sexual violence was basically stereotypical notions that I had borrowed from television shows and movies. I also have to note that this was twenty years ago – when the public discourse on sexual violence was underdeveloped compared to today. So basically my notion of sexual violence was perpetrators were armed lunatics that lurked in a bush and jumped at you. It didn’t occur to me that it could be your boyfriend and that it could happen in your own bed. So, it took me a long time to dismantle these myths in my head. By the time I had, and I could identify that I had been raped by my first boyfriend, he had left the country because his exchange program had come to an end. He was as far from me as he could possibly get, on the planet, because Australia and Iceland are at literally on opposite ends.  
I think that a part of the reason why it took me a while to face what truly happen that night was also reluctance. It was a really painful thing to come to terms with and to face – that the first time I gave my heart away, it would result in abuse. I wanted to retain my faith in human relationships and my trust in other people. It was also something I shied away from for some time, but, when it fell into place in my head, with Tom being on the other side of the planet, with my physical injuries having healed, with the fact that I didn’t have any witnesses, it didn’t occur to me as a realistic option to go and press charges. I had no hope that it would lead to anything productive for me. I did what a majority of people do statistically – they try to move on after an event like this. I fell into the majority, the norm in that sense. I tried for nine years to push it away and move on and not think about it.

It turned out to be increasingly hard because a part of me needed to confront this, a part of me needed to heal. Suppressing it became a very demanding task. I became an over achiever in the sense that I filled my schedule around the clock so I wouldn’t ever have to stand still and reflect on the past because that was too dangerous and invited too much self-reflection. I also resorted to destructive coping mechanisms. I struggled with eating disorders, there was just a lot of negative behavioural patterns in my life. This was causing stress and tension in my relationships not only with other people, but also myself, ultimately. So nine years later, I guess I had hit somewhat of a rock bottom, and I had a fight with someone that I loved and I stormed out of the door, and drove in tears to a cafĂ©, and stormed inside. I asked the waitress for a pen, so I could doodle in my notebook to calm myself, but then, this letter streamed out of my pen, addressed to Tom, who had abused me all these years earlier. It was very much a surprise because I hadn’t been consciously thinking about him.

I guess this was a testament to how this had been brewing in my subconscious and how I needed to get it out. So, I was faced with a decision. What was I going to do with this? Would I send it?  I had no idea if he was still using this old email address of his that I had from almost a decade earlier. I had no other contact information – and this was before the age of social media. Of course, my mind went on with all kinds of possible outcomes. If I did send it, and if he'd react negatively, if he'd accuse me of lying, or simply ignore it and not respond to me, how would it affect me?

Having thought about all these different outcomes, I came to the conclusion that even the worst possible ones would still be worth a shot because I felt that I needed to reclaim this voice of mine that had made such a daring appearance. These words that had broken through the surface deserved to be spoken or written. I decided to fire off the email and didn't expect a reply. The only outcome I had not prepared myself for mentally was the one that I got – which was Tom’s typed confession. He sent me this email where he unwaveringly owned up to his actions without making any excuses and without minimizing them in anyway whatsoever.

This sparked a correspondence which was definitely not part of my plan. I had never even entertained that notion that it would lead to a correspondence. When I got the opportunity to ask all these questions that had been haunting me for so many years, it was too valuable not to take it. And I think that’s also a very human characteristic – it is something that is shared by many survivors, this million dollar question of “Why?” I think the pain that is most difficult to bear in life is the pain you can’t really reason with, the pain you don’t understand, because there is something that is really healing about being able to put your suffering into context. I guess that’s what drove me to embark on this correspondence. It became apparent to me that Tom needed it for the same reasons, because he too had been haunted by his actions and his guilty conscience and he too needed to voice his thoughts to me.
For eight years, we analyzed the causes and consequences of that fateful night, but it was never too friendly or familiar. It was not a pen-pal-ship. It was a strict analysis of all those years and we never strayed from the subject because after all, I never intended to become Tom’s penpal. That was not the aim of this communication. It was more to seek answers and put in context how the event had shaped my life, hoping that it would lead to healing. I guess I had to communicate some of the consequences to him in order to hold him accountable for them.

After eight years, I had written everything I wanted to write, and had posed the thoughts I wanted to pose. Yet, for some reason, it felt incomplete.

That’s when I realized that after all, the written format is silent. There is something very powerful about giving actual voice to the most fateful experiences of life that have marked you the deepest. It is a literal way to break your silence. There was this notion that I needed to face it in person – the past, to prove to myself that I wasn’t a prisoner of it anymore and that it wasn’t going to dominate my future, and it was a way to put a full stop to that because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing emails about the violence Tom subjected me to. I suggested that we meet up and once and for all give voice to this part of our past that had ended up shaping our lives more than anything and it would hopefully result in something constructive that would enable a brighter future and a deeper level of understanding. Tom was nervous and scared when I presented the idea. I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t nervous about it too – after all, it was quite radical.

I had no precedent, no one’s footsteps to follow, so I decided to follow my heart and my heart was adamant about this being the way to move forward. I suggested that we meet in the middle, on neutral ground. A wild coincidence followed – South Africa was smack in the middle of Sydney and Reykjavik, and it was remarkable because South Africa is one of the countries that has done the most work when it comes to facing the past, speaking the truth and seeking reconciliation. It was highly symbolic in many ways.

That’s where we ended up meeting, sixteen years after that fateful night, in 2013. It took me three days just to get there since it was a long journey and there were no direct flights. I decided it didn’t make sense to go there for less than a week. That's why we spent a week there, basically talking through our lives, because violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Violence happens because people’s actions are shaped by all kinds of social influences – they’re shaped by things that they witness, ideas that they take on, notions that they believe in, and they have consequences that extend far beyond just the four walls of the room where, for example, this violent incident took place. Of course, you carry it with you for the remainder of your life.

I felt it was important to talk through our lives with that in mind. What was it that shaped the person that decided to do this to me despite being a privileged western, educated, middle class white boy who had all the opportunities in the world and was raised in a balanced family by loving parents that taught him about equality, what could make him commit a crime like this? I had to hear how it had affected him to live with this, post incident. How had it shaped his self-image to integrate this part of himself into his being and face up to his deeds, and to illustrate to him how he had affected my life. This was a key element in the entire process, to communicate it to him in order to free myself of the shame and self-blame I had wrongfully shouldered. It was a symbolic act in transferring the responsibility and the burden that I had taken on, onto Tom, to whom they rightfully belonged. I wanted to heal and to try enable a brighter future for myself, but also give him a chance to apologize and make up for his wrongdoing.

Of course I had doubts along the way. There is no manual for how you do this, but I never thought this journey would put me in physical danger. I wouldn’t have taken such a risk given that I had found a partner that I was happy with and had a child. I wouldn’t have risked any of that if I thought that Tom posed any danger to me. When I say I was scared or doubtful, I don’t mean that I feared Tom as someone who would be abusive again, but more in the sense that I didn’t know if this exercise would result in healing or in further understanding, or if it would be a mission impossible, or an overpriced farce for nothing that would perhaps result in more emotional damage. There were emotional risks involved, but despite it being a difficult week, there were also some fantastic discoveries and some life changing talks that were had. Some conversations called for vulnerability that is so raw that you are left feeling skinned. Those were challenging talks to have, but having said that, I know that they permanently changed my view on my past and myself. By the time we left Cape Town, there had been a shift. A crazy hope was born in me – that by sharing what we'd learned, this pain and suffering could be potentially transformed into something useful. For me, and for other people who are locked in their own silence, not knowing how to proceed, or people that had blamed themselves the way that I did, or people that are struggling to take responsibility for hurting another person, like Tom. There are multiple hopes attached to going public with this story.

There was also a level of realism that it would be met with the whole spectrum of reactions. The notion of seeing or hearing a perpetrator of sexual violence speaking is uncomfortable for a lot of people. I have a strong belief that the invisibility and lack of accountability on part of the perpetrator is a part of the problem. I think that by making perpetrators visible, accountable and responsible and looking into the toxic notions that drive their violent behavior, we can learn a lot. That can be a step in the direction of uprooting those toxic notions that foster abuse.

Our story is not a manual or methodology intended for others to follow. We are two individuals with a personal story that we’re offering up for discussion. However, I don’t think that the shame and blame that I shouldered is unique to me. I think it is common among survivors. Likewise, I don’t think that the notion of entitlement that made Tom believe he was entitled to my body – because he was my boyfriend, because we’d been out partying together – is unique to him. They are shared by a lot of people and that has to end. We have to begin somewhere, and I’m hoping that by sharing this story, it can spark a discussion about consent, boundaries and the universal human right to decide when you engage in sexual activity and with whom – because there’s still a long way to go in that area.

Thordis and Tom at their TED talk  (Credits: Marla Aufmuth)
We wrote a book together called South of Forgiveness. Tom and I both made that decision unanimously, as we shared the belief that there was a potential for our story to help other people, who had been in the same situation we were in. That was another whole part and a new chapter in this story. Ironically, when I went to South Africa, it was because I didn’t want to write about the past anymore. And the first thing I do when I return from South Africa is to fly into writing about our analysis of the past that week and what it resulted in.

I read somewhere that you should be the person you yourself needed when you were younger, and I know that it would have saved me years of silent suffering had I heard a story like this, earlier in my life. That hope fuelled me. South of Forgiveness came out this spring, and with the word 'forgiveness' being in the title, it has gotten a lot of focus in the public discourse about our book. It has opened my eyes to the fact that forgiveness is a highly individualized concept, and in many people’s eyes, forgiveness is almost like a sacrificial thing - as you giving another as a form of blessing. But my view of forgiveness is the counter opposite of that. I see forgiveness as an act of self-interest, and I saw it as a way for me to let go of the shame and self-blame I wrongfully shouldered. Forgiveness is not laying your blessing over the hurt, but underlining the hurt, while stating that you don’t want to be weighed down anymore. It was a way for me to sever ties with this past that had weighed me down for so long.

I understand those that don’t share my opinion, but that is my view. It was my process towards a brighter future that was not dominated and dictated by what had happened to me – because I am much more than what happened to me.

High-Functioning Depression – Think beyond the stereotype

By Radhika Maira Tabrez
‘Stereotype’ has never been one of my favorite words. It plays out exactly as its definition says it
would – hackneyed, oversimplified and yet, unfortunately, widely held.

So if we go by the stereotype that the society holds for people suffering from depression, I would get the following image. Of someone who has trouble getting out of bed every morning. Of someone who spends her days crying and feeling hopeless. Of someone who hardly has any friends and barely keeps in touch with her family.  Of someone who is unable to function well in her daily life and deliver on her responsibilities.

While all that holds true for some types of depression, it is not a behavior pattern that covers all. During the last twenty years of dealing with this affliction, I have managed to earn an MBA, build a successful career, get married, have a child and raise him with minimal outside support, and then make a successful career switch to being a writer. Most of my friends and family consider me to be a person of above average wit. I am a very sociable person. I deliberately chose, and thankfully managed to excel in, a career that demands extensive social interaction – Training and Development.
A lot of people even state these facts while voicing their amazement to me, as to how could someone as funny, confident, sucessful and outgoing (as they have come to define my personality in all the years that they have known me) one day just declare that she has been depressed for as long as I have.
I remind them of Robin Williams, one of the finest comedian and actor this world has ever known, who suffered from depression for years before he finally succumbed to it. Chris Cornell had performed to a crowd of thousands, just a night before he committed suicide. Hemingway had bagged a Nobel before his depression and psychosis got better of him.

That’s the thing. The way the world sees a patient suffering from ‘high-functioning’ depression is a factor of many variables, different than those that define who they are or how they are feeling, inside. All the things they stated as my personality traits are as much a part of me, as is the constant feeling of sinking that keeps tugging at my heart. Somedays it is at its peak and those are the days I experience the sleeping, eating and other social disorders that define a depression patient in the common parlance. But on most days I wake up, do what my life and my responsibilities as a wife and a mother demand of me, and deliver on them, hopefully as well as I would want to.

That’s ‘high-functioning’ depression for you, in a nutshell. Or in the correct medical terminology – Dysthymia.

A common question I have been asked often enough since I came out with my confession is – why then, did I keep up this facade of a happy life. Someone even went to the extent of quoting what I have written in the ‘About Me‘ section of my blog, as something quite contrary to my depressed self. I would like to clarify something.

Suffering from depression doesn’t mean I am perennially sad. Sorrow is a state of mind based on some temporary situations in your life. Depression is a medical condition set off by chemical imbalances, made worse by genetics or environmental factors.

That is an important distinction for people to know and get when dealing with someone with depression. Sorrow may pass on its own, with time. Depression needs an intervention of some sort, in the form of medicines, therapy or conscious actions on the patient’s part.

Some people wrote back to me saying that they are surprised at my confession, considering how strong a person they have always known me to be. The person they know was the High School Captain. Was one of the youngest people to head a function in one of the organizations she worked for. Was the only female to become the President of the Students’ Council of her Business School. Got married for love, outside of her religion – a move which, sadly in India, is as big a taboo as it is. Went on to write a book and win an award for it. They spoke to me as if reminding me of someone I used to be a long, long time ago. I wrote back to them saying, I still am that very person. I am just making them aware of something about me that they didn’t yet know. That I have a medical condition, have had it for all those years when the aforesaid milestones happened; and that I am finally speaking out about it so that others may benefit from my journey.

In my experience, the strength someone displays in their daily life functions has got little to do with the weakness they feel in their spirit sometimes. Both are definitely not mutually exclusive, as most people would have you believe.

Our body and mind have an incredible coping mechanism. We know of cases where people with one physical handicap find some other part or sense of their body compensating for that. People with hearing disability with a strong sense of smell. People with a visual disability with an enhanced auditory capability. The examples are many.

Someone who has been dealing with depression may, therefore, over the years build a strong personality. It could be both, a defense as well a coping mechanism. But just because someone can be strong whenever life demands them to be, doesn’t mean they lose the right to crumble down to pieces every now and then.

The important thing is that they have also, with time and experience, learned to pick them selves up again and put it all back together, with minimum help from others. That is a skill developed over the years. And therein lies the strength that everyone sees and relates with them.

So just because someone appears to ‘have it all together’, doesn’t mean it comes effortlessly to them.
I write all this as a plea to everyone. Understanding a monster like depression is the first step in enabling those who are dealing with it to speak up about their trials and tribulations. Speaking up is essential for healing from a layered and complex affliction like ‘high-functioning’ depression.
And it all starts with everyone willing to look beyond the stereotype.

The Calm Alert

Reena Ginawala
Reena Ginwala is all about taking life as it comes: between helping people reflect based on Indian philosophy and traditional wisdom on the one hand, and investing in gardening, cycling and travelling. Here’s a conversation with her.
This post is part of a series of interviews with ABBF’s InSync Tandem Cycling Ride.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? What are your likes, dislikes, hobbies, passions and hopes and dreams?
I am a woman, 56 years old, a mother of 3 daughters age 32, 26 and 25 years. I like meeting people from different walks of life. I love train journeys and listening to Kabir folk music – I dislike hypocrisy, corruption, meaningless and exclusive development, violence and lack of safety for all. My passion and hobbies are to create tool kits for personal reflection based on India philosophy and traditional wisdom, gardening, cycling and travelling. I hope that the world will be peaceful and joyful someday. People will learn to share, be sustainable and honour our earth and the natural resources. I dream that people will not function from fear or greed but rather thrive from celebrating inter-dependence and mutual respect for all species on our planet.

Tell us about your journey into cycling. Can you tell us a little about your training? What was your journey like? 
Since early 2017, I have been in a harvest mode… My daughters are in their fields of passion, engaging deeply and authentically with their job, impacting society and the world in their field – Art Curation, Adventure Therapy and Veterinary Practices … With the youngest also graduating and standing on her own feet, I decided to focus on my fitness and aspirations. My daughter Tanya had been part of the support team with ABBF on their Tandem ride from Manali to Khardungla in 2016 and was taking groups this August so I decided to take the plunge and register. First I thought I could be part of the support team but my daughter encouraged me to start cycling and register as a participant. It was a perfect gentle nudge that I needed. In June, I bought a helmet and a cycle and started cycling, doing balancing asanas, pranayam and some strengthening and stretching exercises. Soon 5 km became an easy 20 km and in the next month, I did a 95 km ride along tricky slopes to Lavasa Dam. It took me 8 hours to cycle slowly and rest for 1.5 hours in intervals but the fact that I could sit on a cycle for 8 hours out of 9.5 hours was something that was unbelievable for me. This boosted my confidence and love for cycling. I fell a few times and learnt about my tricky spots and took guidance from the ABBF team to practice certain techniques of balancing, getting off the cycle suddenly, managing potholes and gravel while cycling etc. I have a realistic sense about my abilities and limits now and am keen to make a good attempt to cycle as much as I can during M2K2017.

You're all set to do something amazing with the ride from Manali to Khardung La! How do you feel about it? What is your special training regiment like? 
I am in a ‘Calm Alert’ state since the last few months. We will all maintain a high level of self responsibility and take calculated risks so that the best that is possible happens on such adventures many things are uncertain and the risks are real. A constant effort on dissolving our fears and egos is a must along with empathy and mindfulness. Our training regiment is as much a physical, emotional and mental journey. We need to cycle regularly and try different inclines, gears, work on cadence, rhythm, breathing and balance. We also need to respect our body and give it rest and appropriate food. Self Care is the priority. It feels good to be connected and grateful to my body while following this regime.

Can you tell us a little about your family? What do they think about the new amazing thing you're about to do?
I am a single parent. I have 3 daughters and a mix breed dog in my family. Tanya works with ABBF and is in the core team organizing this expedition. My other two daughters are in New Zealand and Colombo. They are very happy that I am doing this and preparing for something that I have not done before. They are quite confident and reassured that Tanya and I will take care of each other and other team members too will work together as a team. They think I am ready for this!!

What have your personal challenges been? How have / do you work to overcome them? What inspires you?

Discipline and consistency have been challenges for me since I long time. I have been able to overcome them to some extent as I practiced and exercised over the last 2.5 months. I am vegetarian and a bit overweight so eating right and consciously has also been an important aspect of my preparation. I do eat more proteins and sleep more regular hours, I also wake up early take naps during the day when needed. I am more tuned in with my body. There is much gratitude, responsibility and care for it now. I am aware of the need to improve my balance so I do some yogasanas and stretching exercises that help. There are cramps and specific pains that indicate tightness and misalignment that I need to look into. I have also watched videos on youtube and taken help from my friends who are into cycling since a long time. I fell down 3 times on a particular day when I attempted a long ride. The first fall within the first 45 minutes, was when I slipped in a pothole filled with water and hit my head on the road and bruised my elbow. It did not deter me. I cycled 95 kms in the hilly terrain outside Pune – to Lavasa dam from 6 am to 3.40 pm It took me much longer than others and I was almost on my own that day … in the rains with a young IT engineer cycling the critical terrain from Pirangut to Lavasa Dam wall alongside. I did feel overwhelmed about making it back the 45 km on my own as he went ahead with his friends but took a grip of myself and took away the pressure of reaching well in time. A conversation with Tanya to share my feelings of overwhelm and fear of falling helped as she reassured me and offered to pick me up when I felt it was enough. What helps is that I have conversations with myself constantly and do not feel alone. I also seek help if needed, do not have any ego issues or hesitation about that. I inspire ‘ME’ – with humility and self respect. I listen to music by Kabir, Shiva chants and Indian Ocean to fill me with courage and inspiration.

The Peacebuilder

Daniel Trust is a Rwandan genocide survivor, an internationally recognized motivational speaker, and an advocate for refugee, low-income and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth. Daniel Trust delivers keynote speeches at middle and high schools, universities, corporations and conferences around the world. His speaking topics and areas of expertise include surviving the Rwandan genocide, advocacy for low-income, refugee and LGBT youth, youth development, college and career success, social entrepreneurship, and philanthropy. Daniel is the Founder and CEO of the Daniel Trust Foundation, a US-based nonprofit organization that invests in and supports low-income students with their educational and professional goals. Here is Daniel’s story:

My mother was Tutsi and my father was Hutu, so she was from the minority tribe, the one that was being killed. The whole thing started when the then President, who was Hutu, and was assassinated – and the Hutus found an excuse to massacre the Tutsis. People say that this whole thing was planned way ahead of time – and one theory is that the Hutus themselves killed the President to find a justification to murder the Tutsis.

Together, my parents had eight kids. Because my mom was Tutsi, we were seen as Tutsis. My father was also killed. I remember we went into hiding with other families, hiding in the church. One day, the killers came to the church and took everyone outside and started killing everyone. My mother was one of them. My father was also eventually caught and killed. The killers also killed two of my sisters, their sixth and seventh children. They went to our house, and then set our house on fire to make us suffer even more. I was only five years old, and it was crazy.

My parents died, and I was lucky enough to survive. Not all the Hutus were killers. There are many people who survived because of Hutu support. They were compassionate and saved many of us who survived. I was then at someone else’s house, and eventually went to the DR Congo. After the war ended, it was not easy – but I came back to Rwanda, and I was about six. It was not easy there, either. I was harassed because I was flamboyant. They would call me names, and it would constantly hurt me. I  used to constantly get beaten – no matter what I did. If I was washing dishes and didn’t do it correctly, I was whipped. If I didn’t do my homework well, I was whipped. If I was sweeping and they didn’t think it was good enough, I was whipped. It was not easy to be in this place. I was constantly getting beaten.

I was whipped for everything. I was so traumatized with everything. Just witnessing my parents die and facing all this was not easy. As a result of all this, I did very poorly at school. From the time I was ten or eleven, because of all the experiences I had, I was traumatized. But now, the thing I am very grateful for is that the higher powers up there have given me all the strength and faith in humanity, to the effect that things are going to be okay.

I started praying, praying for nature to come and take me to where I would not be beaten and someone would help to do my homework, and have friends, and just be a kid.

I have two sisters who live in the US with me here. One of my sisters who came to the US as a refugee, and her husband who was in the Congo, took me to the US to be with her. Getting here, coming to the states is not easy. There are a lot of procedures and processes – and it is very complicated. I first lived in Zambia for four years, where I learned to speak English. It was very tough. We didn’t have family there, and we lived in a very tiny apartment. I went to bed without eating many times. My prayers to not be abused were answered and new challenges presented themselves. When you have such experiences, you start questioning – why, why, why? In my case, I wondered why I wasn’t killed in the genocide so I wouldn’t have to suffer. I would pray again and make peace with it, and say it was going to be okay.

In 2005, I got my papers to come to the states. The first three years were very tough. My English was too shaky and the education system here was very different. In the first fifteen years of my life, I hadn’t had any good education. In sophomore year and junior year, I was doing well, though freshman year was tough. As long as I worked hard and proved myself, I was taken care of. I graduated in 2008 from High School. I started playing sports for the very first time, and became the vice president of the senior class. I was given the opportunity, and had so many resources here, and I had to take advantage of it. The thing, though, is that a lot of people here think they have it tough, but they truly have no idea how tough it can get.

I went to college at the Local State University in Connecticut, and my family was not from a wealthy background. I had to support myself through college. I went to school full time and work full time. It was not easy, but I did it. I graduated in Business in 2013, and worked in banking throughout college, so by the time I graduated, I was one of the managers at a big branch. I had learned a lot working at the bank. I am so determined to do a lot of things.

In 2014, I quit my job and focused on speaking full time since I was already giving a lot of motivational talks, and focused on building my foundation. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and now, this is our fourth year with the foundation. It’s working, but it is not easy. Here I am, working at the Daniel Trust. When I am given the opportunity, I travel to speak. I spend a lot of my time at the foundation, where we mentor young people from disadvantaged communities. We give them resources and support they need. We provide tutoring for their tests at no cost – which are otherwise expensive. We also offer mentorships for scholarship recipients who get $2000. Textbooks are very expensive here, kids spend about $1000-1200 a year on text books – and they use it only for a semester, and that’s a lot to spend!

Many kids come here from different countries and have no assistance, or, they were born here and are from economically backward communities. We guide them. We started a program with eight kids, and today, we have about 42 kids in our scholarship program. That year, we gave our $4000, this year, we’re giving $20,000. We ask our students to honour their teachers who have made a difference in their lives. The reason I do that is because I had a wonderful teacher who showed me care and loved me, and gave me so much guidance – that in her name, I offer the award. We are growing slowly, and we are trying to make an impact.

One of my messages to young people is, don’t let your past prevent you from achieving your dreams. You can always make a difference and impact other people’s lives. 
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