Oct 8, 2013
06:56 PM
Connecticut Today

Rwandan Genocide Survivor and LGBT Advocate Holding Guilford Fundraiser

Rwandan Genocide Survivor and LGBT Advocate Holding Guilford Fundraiser

Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Daniel Ndamwizeye, photographed in New Haven.

Among Daniel U. Ndamwizeye’s memories is one from a dozen years ago. Then, the West Haven resident was 11 and getting on a plane to leave his native Rwanda for Zambia, the first leg of a journey from pain to salvation, from tragedy to opportunity and freedom.

That freedom means the Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) graduate and TD Bank employee can live openly, and comfortably, as a gay man, a status that parts of the world and some of its cultures still struggle to understand, and to accept as simply another shade of normal.

But Ndamwizeye, who goes by the Americanized name Daniel Trust (Ndamwizeye means “I Trust Him” in Kinyarwanda), is not content to rest on the acceptance that has followed his “coming out story.” Instead, he has world-altering aspirations.

Ndamwizeye created a non-profit foundation in 2009 whose mission is to foster links with charitable and educational organizations that aid orphaned children and provide resources to assist the children in their educational and career goals, as well as in their day-to-day lives.

Through the foundation and his increasing number of high-profile motivational speaking appearances, he also acts as an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) advocate, determined to help young people feel secure and supported as they navigate issues of sexual identity.

Those efforts will come into sharp focus Thursday when The Daniel Trust Foundation, Inc. holds its first fundraiser at the Ayuthai Royal Thai Cuisine restaurant in Guilford, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., followed by an after-party at Bar nightclub in New Haven. The fundraiser centers on filling the coffers of The Daniel Trust Scholarship Fund, and a “special Connecticut teacher” will be honored at the event. Tickets, at $40, can be ordered online, and include an open buffet and wine bar, with music by DJ Keemy.

“I am introducing a teacher’s award [for those] who take it to the next level,” Ndamwizeye said over coffee recently at Fuel in New Haven. He talked about a special teacher who will be the initial honoree, but asked that her identity not be revealed in order to preserve the surprise.

The award, to be given to outstanding teachers at each annual fundraiser, will be $500 to start, and will grow “eventually as the foundation grows,” said Ndamwizeye, who will also begin offering scholarships—at $500 or $1,000 initially—to graduating high school seniors who are “doing something good that is greater than themselves.”

To understand how Ndamwizeye got to this point, and to see how tragedy can be transformed into beauty like clay in a sculptor’s hands, you have to go back to what happened before that plane trip to Zambia—to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.

The genocide represented the culmination of decades of ethnic tensions, and when the crisis came, beginning with the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, Hutus engaged in a mass slaughter of the Tutsis. According to human rights organizations, 800,000 men, women, and children were killed. Others place the total closer to 1 million dead.

“Daniel Ndamwizeye can still hear the screams of his mother as she was beaten to death, a victim of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that also claimed the lives of his father and two of his sisters,” is how a story about Ndamwizeye on the SCSU website opens. He was 5 at the time.

 

“Minutes before she was murdered in a church where the family had sought refuge from machete-wielding Hutus, Ndamwizeye held his mother’s hand—and felt all the security that personal touch brings, especially at the age of 5,” the story says.

“It’s the memory that flashes back like it happened yesterday," Ndamwizeye said of his mother’s slaying, the story continues. “I never understood the whole thing and I still don't understand … . Sometimes I asked myself why I was saved, and I never get to an answer. It’s just that God saved me from that place, because they could have killed me.”

The fact that he lived—especially amid the magnitude and horror of the genocide—made him a survivor on multiple levels.

“I pretty much grew up with my brother and his wife,” Ndamwizeye recalled of what happened next, going on to recount his journey, first to Zambia in 2001 with the husband of one of his sisters, and then, at age 15 in 2005, to the U.S.

“When he was coming to the states,” Ndamwizeye said of that brother-in-law, “he said he would bring me with him. This is something I’d always dreamed about.”

When he went to Zambia as a refugee, Ndamwizeye didn’t know how to speak any English, and was in a foreign place where he didn’t know anyone.

A dozen years later, he’s a college graduate with a good job who not only speaks English fluently but is very articulate, is building a career as a motivational speaker, and is digitally savvy and versed in social media—but most of all is committed to using his life and story as the foundation for giving back and making a difference.

“When I came here, everything just happened,” Ndamwizeye said of America, admitting that it was a lot of work. In the U.S., though, there was a return of familial support, and values, in part because a sister was already here—having come as a refugee—and because he found a much larger family among the teachers and students at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, and then at SCSU.

He graduated from Bassick in 2008, where, according to his website bio, he was his senior class vice president, captain of the volleyball and cross-country teams, and a member of the Yearbook Club, Key Club, National Honor Society and bowling team. At Bassick, he earned MVP awards for volleyball and cross-country, and a sportsmanship award for volleyball, the bio says, adding that he was the Male Athlete of Year, and voted Most Likely to Succeed, Teacher’s Pet and Best Dressed at his senior banquet. 

Ndamwizeye graduated last May from SCSU with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration, with a concentration in business management.

By that point, the future path of inspiring others and giving back was already clear for Ndamwizeye, who says, “It’s just amazing how life rolls out.”

The foundation actually began to take shape in 2009, when he was a freshman in college. Someone with a refined sense of style—he even has a style blog—Ndamwizeye recalled designing “stop homophobia” T-shirts. “I started selling them to my friends on campus,” with 10 percent of money from sale of the T-shirts going to support challenged kids he was sponsoring as part of his nascent business with a social conscience.

The initiative succeeded so well that people started requesting the T-shirts, and the business that spawned the foundation became a thriving enterprise even as Ndamwizeye was going to school full-time and already working at TD Bank.

Meanwhile, Ndamwizeye also began to emerge as a motivational speaker, not just for his story of surviving the Rwandan genocide but also for “how I had the guts to come out to my family” and “accept myself for who I am.”

The speaking engagements—with requests eventually coming from such major colleges as the University of Florida and University of Connecticut—began when a social studies teacher at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, whose curriculum covered the genocide and the Holocaust, asked him to share his story with students.

“There were like 400 kids in the auditorium,” he recalled. His presentation drew a great response from students and teachers. He went on to be the keynote speaker at a University of New Haven student leadership event, and then True Colors, a Hartford area nonprofit, invited him for a conference with 3,000 kids. “So that was huge,” he said, adding, “The more my story has been out there, the more people have been asking me to speak.”

 

His message, if it’s not obvious, is in part that “Daniel is gay but he’s able to be a businessman,” and that, while Ndamwizeye has known great tragedy, he’s living proof that faith, will and a special soul are ingredients for overcoming adversity to not only find personal equilibrium but also to become a force for good.

In terms of the foundation, the scholarships and his deepening career as a motivational speaker, Ndamwizeye seems poised for greater and greater successes.

And in terms of the fight for the rights of the LGBT community, there remains lots of work to be done. “America has made progress,” said Ndamwizeye, who became an American citizen in 2010. “More and more people are coming out and they feel comfortable.”

“Internationally we are not” getting anywhere, he said, noting that in “parts of Africa they are very homophobic,” including Rwanda, and in other countries people are still put in jail for their sexual orientation.

“Daniel Trust spent many years in silence and in denial about his sexual orientation, but in 2009 after an attempt to commit suicide he finally got courage and broke the silence by telling his best friend he was gay and eventually came out to his friends, family and co-workers,” his website bio recounts.

If he can overcome that challenge, and a genocide that claimed his parents and two sisters—he has two sisters in the U.S. and two brothers in Rwanda; another brother was killed in Rwanda when struck by lightning while playing an electric guitar—then  the odds are in Ndamwizeye’s favor when it comes to overcoming biases long overdue for extinction.

To be part of it, connect with the fundraiser Thursday.

“This is a charity extravaganza party you do not want to miss this fall,” the website description says. “We will have great beats by the awesome DJ Keemy + photography by the talented Olivier Kpognon - he will make you feel like a celebrity throughout the night. We will also have a red carpert moment for you as you walk in the restaurant + take a moment to be interviewed by our host for DT Style TV. The best dressed attendees will be featured on DTStyleDaily.com. We will be Tweeting and Instagraming LIVE. Hashtag ALL your photos & tweets using #DanielTrustFoundation. We can't wait to see you at the party. #PartyForCharity.

 

Rwandan Genocide Survivor and LGBT Advocate Holding Guilford Fundraiser

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