With help from Pellissippi State Community College, Jean D. Nkurunziza is getting his career back on track. The former banker from Rwanda has spent the last two years at Pellissippi State in pursuit of his dream: becoming an auditor with a Knoxville bank.
Nkurunziza once had an enviable position with the Central Bank of Rwanda, but an attempted coup put an end to the status quo, including the jobs he and his wife had held.
In 1994 a political faction shot Rwanda’s president’s plane out of the sky. An estimated 800,000 people were ultimately mass-murdered in about 100 days of ethnic struggle in the central-eastern African country.
“The radical people and the militia cracked down,” said the 48-year-old. “They were going door to door killing those who sympathized with the uprising. We had genocide in our country.”
Nkurunziza, who retains a pronounced accent but is gaining ground with his English every day, and his wife stayed indoors with their year-old child for two weeks, not daring to come out even at night. With no phone, TV or computer, their only link to the outside world was the radio.
By the end of the chaos, the young couple has taken in the three children of Nkurunziza’s wife’s cousin because the parents were among those killed. With the birth of another baby the next year, they suddenly had five children. Life seemed more or less to return to normal for several years. But politics intervened again when his wife lost her job in 2006 and Nkurunziza lost his in 2007.
The couple did their best to find new positions but couldn’t.
“We left Rwanda for political reasons,” Nkurunziza said.
First out was his wife. With the help of an international refugee agency, she was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee. The refugee agency and a local church helped her find an apartment, a car and a job. A year later, he followed, leaving the children with relatives.
It wasn’t the first time Nkurunziza had arrived at a U.S. airport.
“When I traveled before, I came as an official,” he said. “I had people to receive me at the airport. They put me in the hotel, and I make a meeting. This time, my wife came to receive me. I didn’t know what Knoxville is, what Tennessee is.”
The local Bridge Refugee Service, Holy Ghost Catholic Church and Northside Christian Church contributed household basics. A year later, the five kids, now teenagers, joined their parents.
Nkurunziza remains cheerful, despite being displaced.
“With only one income, it’s not easy,” he said, “but we try to do our best.”
Pellissippi State provided the career hope Nkurunziza needed. He began by taking English as a second language, moved on to pre-college-level writing and math, then progressed into regular college classes.
“The teachers at Pellissippi State are available, and they help students who like to be helped,” he said, “especially for me—I had limited language skills, huh? I try to talk to everybody and ask more explanation from the teacher, as much as I can, huh? And they helped me to have success.”
Nkurunziza’s grades at the college have been so good that he’s made the dean’s list. He plans to transfer to the University of Tennessee to earn a degree in accounting. He says he looks forward to the future, when he can begin work in his new life as a bank auditor.