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‘The war’s happening all over again’


1:00 P.M. ET September 11, 2011

When 9/11 happened, I had been in the United States for one year. I had come from Rwanda, Africa, escaping the genocidal war that had been going on there for years. We were still getting used to our new country and our new city, Antioch, Tenn. In September 2001, I was in the fourth grade.

When the class heard about the terrorist attacks, I was terrified because what came to mind was “the war’s happening all over again. The war has followed us to the United States. Where are we going to go now?” When we left Rwanda, my parents told my sisters and me that we were going to a country where things are a lot better — where we would find peace, freedom and happiness.

For me that day, it felt like the world came crashing down on me because I thought our new home was our sanctuary. This was where we would get a fresh start and not worry about what would happen in the morning or where we would flee next. When the teacher turned on the TV, and we saw the towers falling and the planes crashing into buildings, I got so scared I hid under my desk. My teacher had to coax me out and remind me that the attacks were happening a thousand miles away. But words at that moment really didn’t satisfy me. I was still very frightened.

I asked if I could call my mom, who was at work. I was in tears and frazzled, and she was wondering what was going on because she hadn’t heard anything. She was in her cubicle working while everyone else was glued to the TV. I asked her, “Have you been watching the news? Do you know what’s going on?” She said, “What’s going on?” And I told her, “Mom, the bad people are coming for us. They’re coming to get us again. Where are we going to go now?”

Arlette Kitenge in 2001. A web-only photo courtesy of Arlette Kitenge.
Arlette Kitenge in 2001. A web-only photo courtesy of Arlette Kitenge.

She replied, “Honey, it will be OK. It will be all right. Nothing will happen to us. We are in a safe place. This is probably the safest place we could be at this moment. It’s a big, big country. You are in a safe school. I’m safe at work, and I’m sure your dad and your sisters are OK. Just calm down and pray. God will be with you, and everything’s going to be OK.”

My dad had heard about the terrorist attacks. He chose not to call us because he didn’t want us to be alarmed and think the worst of things. He, too, was a little bit scared. But, being the dad of the family, he had to hold things down.

Just 4, but ‘I still remember’

When we left Rwanda, I was 4 years old, and brutal massacres were going on. It was genocide between Hutus and Tutsis, two tribes within the same country. As we fled, we saw bodies all over the place. My mom tried her hardest to hide me from seeing what was going on. But it was really hard, especially because she was carrying my 8-month-old sister. My mother had been on bed rest and was still regaining her strength. It was hard. Even though I was only 4, I still remember.

We fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my dad’s native country. It felt nice because we felt like we would have family. It still was hard, knowing I was leaving the place I had known all my life. Not having hope of ever going back to Rwanda was hard, especially for my mom, who did not know which family members had survived the genocide. Later, we went to Uganda for several years.

Arlette Kitenge (at left) and her family today. A web-only photo courtesy of Arlette Kitenge.
Arlette Kitenge (at left) and her
family today. A web-only photo
courtesy of Arlette Kitenge.

What brought us to the United States was the search for freedom and happiness. My parents wanted to provide a home where we would be stable, be able to go to school and not have to move constantly as we had done for so many years after leaving Rwanda. We looked forward to making friends and having a place we could actually call home. We came to the United States through a resettlement program.

We didn’t actually pick Tennessee. It was chosen for us. I think it was chosen by God because when we came here, we were welcomed by a Presbyterian church. They welcomed us with wonderful open arms, treated us as if we were family and helped us settle. I’m thankful for that. We are able to call Tennessee our home, and we’ve made lots of friends and family that we never thought we would have.

The events of 9/11 influenced me in the sense that I need not always worry about what is to come. The people who died on 9/11 had no idea that would happen to them. Some might have had things they felt they could have done better or things they shouldn’t have done. But they didn’t have that chance.

Don’t let the past hold you

To me, it was a lesson. You’re never sure of what tomorrow will bring. So make sure you do everything you want to do and tell the people you love that you love them. Don’t let the past hold you like a crutch. Just follow through and always do the best you can. Most importantly, always do what you know God wants you to do.

Now I’m a senior at Trevecca Nazarene University. I chose to pursue a degree in social work because I’ve always had a strong passion for women and children, especially those who have faced violence — domestic violence. I believe I share a little of their story. I can relate to a little of what they are dealing with, and I feel I have something to offer.

I’m the oldest of four daughters. My sisters are 17, 14 and 12. My mom is a hospital chaplain. My dad prepares surgical tools at Vanderbilt Hospital.

I am very blessed to have been given a second chance at life. A large part of my mom’s side of the family did not make it through the genocide war. Other people have grandmothers, aunts and cousins. I don’t have that chance.

I love my family to death. My mother has always taught us to be close to each other. My siblings and I are sisters, best friends and sometimes even worst enemies, but we always find a way to get over our differences.

I think 9/11 affected my attitude about life. Some people feel they can never get over what happened on 9/11. They lost family. They lost a part of themselves. I see it as a reminder of what God can do and how quickly life can take a turn in just a blink of an eye. That always helps me feel I can’t put things on hold. If I need to do something, I need to do it now. I need to trust it will go well, trust that God planned it and trust that if I run into a roadblock, that’s just God letting me know maybe this was not the time for me to do it.

See complete coverage of the 9/11 anniversary

*Kitenge is a senior at Trevecca Nazarene University where she is majoring in social work.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5740 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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