PORTLAND, Maine — Joseph Nsabimana was beaten and left for dead.
He had expressed opinions critical of government of Rwanda, where he lived, and was punished severely for it.
“I was in the opposition,” Nsabimana recalled this week from his home in Portland. “All the people who don’t believe in the political opinion of the ruling party are persecuted, beaten, tortured or even killed.”
When his captors left his limp body on the side of the road after three weeks of beatings, they believed Nsabimana to be in the latter category. He said his years of kung-fu training allowed him to withstand the abuse and offered a pathway out of the country as well.
He came to the United States two years ago to attend an international martial arts competition, and once here, applied for and received legal status as an asylum seeker. He now lives in Portland with his wife, Violette, and three children.
Even for a well-traveled American college student such as Bethany Dixon, hearing about Nsabimana’s journey proved jarring.
Dixon, who spent many of her formative years living in Tanzania and Costa Rica, is now taking part in a unique program that places Williams College students in the homes of Portland immigrants and asylum seekers.
The immersive experience aims to help students of the selective, $50,000-a-year private school in rural Massachusetts gain an intimate look at the lives of people who left everything to come to urban America in search of safety from persecution.
“Rwanda’s been better to outsiders in recent years. I had only heard very positive things about that country, so it was very eye-opening to hear Joseph’s story and find out what’s really going on there to the people,” Dixon said. “I think I’ve learned a lot also about the transition process to the United States.”
Jeff Thaler, the Williams College alumnus and Portland lawyer who helped found the Williams-at-Home program, said the families who host the students learn more about their new home country and build connections with young people who are fluent in American culture.
“This must be like the moon to them,” Thaler said of the host families. “They come from Africa to here, where there’s subzero weather, and they have to survive.”
Many of the Williams students — between five and 10 of whom come to Portland for nearly a month each winter break — report that their host families often are amazed to hear about the accessibility and quality of higher education in this country. Thaler said the students field questions about the application process and financial aid.
“The thing that I realized in terms of what the families get out of it is that most of the children [in the host families] had never met a college student before,” he said.
The 7-year-old program was inspired by his own experience at Williams, when under the mentorship of the late professor Robert Gaudino, Thaler and other students spent five months in 1972 living and working in diverse homes around the country.
“The word ‘transformative’ can be trite, but it really was transformative,” Thaler, who now teaches courses at both the University of Maine and its law school, recalled. “I was threatened for living with a black family in Georgia. None of us was hurt, but it was very enlightening.”
Forty years later, students who take part in today’s program don’t report threats of violence, but that doesn’t prevent them from experiencing the often harsh realities of immigrant life.
“I have had students living with these families who do put the [traditional Muslim head covering] hijab on, and they realize what they thought would be tolerance toward them really wasn’t, despite being in a supposedly tolerant area like Greater Portland,” Thaler said.
Williams College participants are required to write an approximately five-page reflection — exploring race, ethnicity, religion and other things that make up their identity and life experiences — before coming to Maine. They’re then asked to write a second such essay explaining how they’ve changed after more than three weeks living with the new Portland families.
“I’ve learned how many refugees, asylees and immigrants have amazing stories if anybody would bother to listen,” Thaler said.
Among them are Nsabimana, who helped found a Rwandan kung-fu club that accepted members of the warring Hutus and Tutsis alike, and used the sport to mend relationships between the two ethnic groups in the mid-1990s. And who, despite his years of hard work building bridges, was forced to use that same training more than a decade later to escape the lingering conflict alive.
When asked what a college student such as Dixon could learn living as a part of his family, Nsabimana answered: “We have a different understanding of ‘patience.’”