A New Kind of American

When he lost his native home, Oliver Hakizimana never stopped moving onward with life, rebuilding a new home in a foreign land.

“Sorry that I’m a bit late, I had to get something to eat,” he said as he shuffled his bag containing a box of takeout food. Food is serious to Oliver Hakizimana and many restaurants in the city of New Brunswick, New Jersey are very familiar with the tall and loquacious man. Whether it’s at Sanctuary or at Cookie Rush down Easton Avenue, Starbucks on George Street or Gerlanda’s on College Avenue,Oliver is a man who leaves a strong impression and revisits many places to maintain a strong bond with an extremely diverse set of people. Being an immigrant, he knows far too well what it is like to be a fish-out-of-water. To him everyone is equal and worthy of attention.

In 1994, at the tender age of 9, Oliver was uprooted from his homeland of Rwanda and forced to flee to Zaire. He was a member of the Hutu tribe that fled the violence that engulfed the country after years of a civil war. The Rwandan Genocide holds the reputation as one of the most heinous acts in modern recorded history. This event resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 Rwandans.

“I was just a kid,” Oliver says as he puts his fork down and his face becomes more solemn. He looks down to reflect on his past before returning to the conversation. At 32 years old, Oliver is a graduate student majoring in science education at Rutgers University of New Jersey and a longtime resident of Somerset, NJ. Impressively, he can remember all the details of his life from being a young child caught in struggle for his life to an awkward young adolescent adjusting to American society to a hard-working college graduate student.

Given the circumstances of his tumultuous life, Oliver had to mature early and develop an inner-strength to overcome obstacles.“There was a sense of uncertainty, there was a sense of danger but there was definitely a sense of stability because everyone knew that all you had to do was live through it and stick together,” he says in a stoic tone.

Oliver’s journey was not an easy one. He and his family along with other refugees arrived in the town of Goma in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) after fleeing from Rwanda. From Goma, Oliver and his family left for Nairobi, Kenya.

Oliver’s life in Kenya was what he describes as “pretty much in a transition phase.” Making permanent friends was not a priority for him as young boy who hoped to return to Rwanda. The urban backdrop of Nairobi was far different than what the young Rwandan was accustomed to, hailing from a small suburban neighborhood.

Oliver recalls many interesting experiences in Nairobi, like being able to buy many goods previously unavailable to him and living in a recently constructed mega-apartment building. The family had brought their savings with them during their flight from Rwanda and Oliver’s father found work in Kenya to help support the rent and other expenses.

“For some time, the Kenyan people actually did not like us very much,” Oliver admits as he takes another bite of his meal. However, the contempt that a number of Kenyans gave to him and other Rwandan refugees did not faze him at all. For him, it was simply being able to live in peace and take advantage of all the opportunities that mattered most. Oliver placed a lot of emphasis on integrating into the foreign country’s society. He learned Swahili and English and according to him, he and other Rwandan refugee students “performed just as well or better than the Kenyan students.”

While it seemed like the Hakizimana family was finally stabilizing and succeeding in Kenya, this period was breached once another relocation was decided upon. This time it was a conscious decision by the family to settle in the United States; there they would receive better opportunities and safety. A lengthy immigration process kept them in Kenya for almost 3 years but on March 2, 1997, at the age of 12, Oliver arrived in the United States with his family and settled in the state of New Jersey.

The adjustment to life in US was a complex situation for Oliver and his family, despite the preparations they made which included his father and brother attending cultural competency classes courtesy of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A major factor for the uneasy transition was due to economic constraints. However this did not discourage him nor his family. Oliver recalls, “I decided to do the best I could and live with whatever means I had. It was not easy because we did not come here with a bucket of gold, we came here with nothing.”

Spending his childhood years as a refugee hardened him into a person who feels very little attachment to material objects and physical places. A philosophy of pragmatism left Oliver with no fear of abandoning his current home, a fear he claims that many Americans have. In Oliver’s mind the US is “still just another place to live” and he has no qualms about leaving to another land to start his life over. He is a drifter type and seems adept at adapting to many different environments.

Oliver considers himself to be a universal spirit. He does not limit his existence to national origin nor does he group himself with others on the sole basis of skin color. His perspective is that “the US is very much obsessed with grouping people, and they group people based on origin, race, gender, gender identity and all the other XYZs: income brackets. You tend to find people from one group rarely hanging with people from another group and when they do it seems to cause conflict.” Oliver says that he feels a kinship with many people regardless of their origin, especially with fellow immigrants due to the fact “they have a whole different perspective on living here than native-born Americans.”

Despite being initially introverted, Oliver grew into a person who is always curious and does not hesitate to converse with people who interest him. His life experiences had led to him developing confidence and to stop worrying too much about awkward encounters. According to Oliver, a complete stranger is his favorite type of person to engage in discourse with regardless of whether they seem approachable or not.

Many of the urban dwellers of George Street in New Brunswick, NJ have grown familiar with Oliver. The area is one of his favorite spots to be due to the many restaurants, musical venues and bars available. A good friend of Oliver, is John G. Sabin, a hearty saxophonist who performs daily on the streets. John says that Oliver “respects people. He talks to many people of all types. He respects people no matter what their opinion is or their class of life.” John and his wife have been friends with Oliver for two years, spending a lot of time with him, and even helping Oliver with his driving.

In many ways, Oliver became an ideal American citizen, one who is tolerant and accepting of all people regardless of differences. Whether they are they are young students, the elderly, the homeless, the wealthy, the working class, he willingly befriends and enjoys the company of many. To him labels are limiting and he expects everyone to just be themselves, and even saying that there is “no need to categorize”. He is a man who has compassion for all and does not show many prejudices. All he expects is to receive the same respect that he gives to others.

Today, Oliver spends his time working on his degree and volunteering as a tutor at Rutgers University. Volunteering for Oliver stems from his very personal beliefs in altruism. “I put helping others ahead of helping myself,” he explains. Oliver desires to become a high school science teacher one day, and education is something that he holds very dear to his heart. Knowing the impact that education has had on him, he “hopes to pass it down to others.”

After finishing his meal, Oliver decides to go to Cookie Rush, a New Brunswick-based bakery where he is warmly welcomed by the staff. Server Emily Newton touts Oliver as one of her favorite customers. “He’s real social and makes everybody laugh and smile and he always orders a cookie sandwich with chocolate ice cream,” she says. As his friend John Sabin says, Oliver Hakizimana is “a man of habit”.

Overall, being an immigrant has changed Oliver a lot, his unusual circumstance of spending periods of his formative years in four separate countries, Rwanda, Zaire, Kenya and the US has made him extremely flexible in interaction and adaptable to new environments. “My immigrant background helps me fit into many social groups in the US,” he claims.

However, Oliver has some criticism for American society which is mainly his belief that the dynamics of the US culture do not fit within the idea of egalitarianism. He says that while “all Americans are equal under the Constitution we still create a hierarchy”.

Oliver closes with one piece of advice for the country and that is that “Americans should be more approachable, willing to engage in conversations, and open-minded about each other’s ideas”. While for him, everyone is worthy of equal attention, he feels that it is an ideology that others are in desperate need of as well.


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