Anselme Sadiki knows what it is to be a refugee escaping a life of horror in his native country with little hope of being welcomed in a new one.
His story is an object lesson for our times.
For the last three years, Sadiki has been the executive director of the Idaho Children’s Home Society. He has a good life in a city and country he loves.
What it took for him to get get here, however, is a story that most of us with comfortable lives have trouble just imagining.
A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire, he was a university student when the country’s dictator launched a campaign of terror against intellectuals. His thugs came with knives in the night, killing an estimated 250 students. Sadiki was wounded but escaped by jumping out a window and running for his life.
“There were bodies everywhere. Bodies broke my fall.”
It took him two months, walking and riding buses, to get to Nairobi, Kenya and apply for asylum. He spent two years there.
When unrest in other parts of Africa brought a new wave of displaced people, then Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi ordered all refugees to leave the city. Thousands were herded into a stadium. Some of the children died.
The refugees were sent to a camp with no sanitary facilities. Trucks delivered water and food, often not enough. Ten gallons of water per person had to last a week. Malnutrition, cholera, malaria and other diseases sickened hundreds.
Now 50, Sadiki looks back on his time at the camp as being “worse than hell. Given a choice between hell and that camp, I’d rather be in hell.”
When an aid team from Geneva, Switzerland visited the camp, he recognized one of its members. Jana Nwoko had interpreted for him while he was living in Nairobi.
“When I saw her, I said, ‘Hi, Jana. Do you remember me?’ She didn’t. When I told her she had interpreted for me, she said, ‘Anselme?’ The shock was so hard for her that she couldn’t speak – only tears. She’d known me as a young man, and now I looked sick and old like I was dying. My weight had gone from 133 pounds to 72 pounds.”
Nwoko arranged for him to return to Nairobi for medical treatment. He regained his health, learned to speak Swahili, worked as a translator for refugees. He also met some American college professors who changed his life.
Roger and Sonja Kurtz met Sadiki at the church where he sang on Sundays and invited him to lunch. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“I went to their house every Sunday for dinner. They drove me to see the animals in Kenya’s national parks. We just clicked.”
When they left to return to the U.S., he was heartsick.
“I thought I’d never see them again. I had lost something precious. These were the people who had made me feel human again.”
He had no idea that, back home in the U.S., the Kurtzes were working to get him to America.
“They called me at the church. It was overwhelming just to hear their voices again. … They told me to meet with an immigration officer at the U.S. embassy to tell my story.
The immigration officer confirmed the details of Sadiki’s story and gave him some life-changing news. After surviving terror, starvation and “not feeling human,” he’d been cleared to go to the U.S. and search for the American dream.
The Kurtzes had found jobs teaching at Idaho State University, where Sadiki enrolled as a student. He met his future wife while studying at ISU, graduated with a degree in social work and became ISU’s recruiter of African students.
The American dream? The onetime refugee became an American citizen, earned a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University and went to work for the United Nations.
He helped establish a government for South Sudan, then the world’s newest country, and oversaw its $250 million startup budget. He worked as a U.N. administrator in Mauritania, Cape Verde and Gabon. He spent a dozen years with the U.N., then returned to Idaho.
“The travel and time away from my wife and daughter were a strain. It was time to choose between my career and my family.”
Though he had virtually no experience working in mental health, his life experiences made him the winning candidate to fill a vacancy as director of the Children’s Home Society. The society provides mental, emotional and behavioral health care to children and their families. It relies on donations to provide services regardless of families’ ability to pay.
Board member Scott Schoenherr credits Sadiki’s exemplary job performance in part to his refugee background.
“His story is almost stranger than fiction. He’s been through things you and I can’t even imagine. If we have a flat tire on the way to work, it’s the end of the world. It’s not that way for him because he knows what the end of the world is. He sees things on a different level, and it’s made him the kind of leader people want to follow. He’s always upbeat and smiling, and I don’t think he has an enemy in the world.”
One of the first clients Sadiki met at the Children’s Home was a young couple whose son was “bouncing off of the walls.
“He was four or five and he was just losing it – pushing and pulling and screaming. It was clear from his parents’ faces that they had lost all hope of handling this little human being. I sat in my office and prayed for the clinician who was going to see him.”
Forty-five minutes later, the clinician’s door opened to reveal a different child.
“He was quiet and smiling and swinging between the arms of his parents. It was that moment that made me believe that this is where I should be and that this place should stay open. If we can do that for one child, we can do it for many others. I’ll stay here as long as I can to do that.”
Sadiki’s transition from refugee to productive American citizen has made him passionate about his new country and the plights of other refugees.
“Many other countries are taking a chance for those who have lived the most horrendous experiences. They’re giving them an opportunity to live life as decent human beings. Nothing makes you love a country more than being given that second chance.
“When my country says it doesn’t want refugees, it hurts because you feel such a sense of love and loyalty for the country that gave you a second chance. It’s not true that all Americans hate refugees. I was accepted here. I was welcomed and loved. I have to work hard to separate that from the anti-immigrant views that are being promoted now, and from the kindness of those who have shown me what becoming an American can mean.”