Goodness Will Follow
When Caritas Habimana walks into a room, everyone notices. Her frame is tall, her voice is sweet and low, and she’s usually dressed in elegantly draped fabrics from her African homeland that make her look like a moving piece of art. Like swarms of butterflies, children flock to her and the grown-ups call her “Cari” or “Auntie” and depend on her as counselor, job-finder, friend, translator or whatever else they might need. She is a vital hub for the refugees who find themselves living half a world away from their East African homeland. Helping them assimilate into all that is American is the ruling passion of Caritas Habimana’s life.
“I just want to do something that can make somebody smile,” she says. “I don’t give them anything. I just help them know what to do and where to go. I help them become strong so they can find jobs, study, go to school. … I want to help them live better so they won’t have to worry.” Caritas carries the worry load for all of them.
For at least a dozen years after arriving in Columbia from Rwanda after the genocide, Caritas prayed asking why she had been spared to make it to America. She wanted to know the purpose of her life, why she lived when others had not. She stumbled upon her calling while driving across town nearly 10 years ago, when she noticed a strange, yet familiar, sight: a family dressed in brightly patterned fabrics, walking down the road, carrying grocery bags on their heads.
“They must be Africans!” she thought. She parked her car, got out and engaged them in conversation. She quickly learned that they, too, had come from East Africa and were thrilled to meet someone who could speak both English and their language, Kinyarwanda. Finally, they had someone to help them navigate this strange new land with its mysterious processed food and all kinds of gadgets and rules that were unheard of in Africa.
Word spread quickly through the African refugee community that there was a woman in Columbia who could speak their language and English. In fact, Caritas speaks several languages: Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, English and French. She became the refugees’ voice, and her daily planner soon filled with appointments to help with school assessments, doctor’s appointments, job applications, grocery shopping, apartment hunting and even reading mail. Her tireless efforts on behalf of her African friends led to her decision to quit her job at a day care center to make more time for the refugees.
Once, during a meeting, our conversation was interrupted by Caritas’ ever-ringing cell phone. A young African woman was calling from work and was desperate to know why someone had just given her two dollars. She did not want to get in trouble for keeping the money. “Keep it! You can keep it,” Caritas exhorted in Kinyarwanda and English. “It’s a tip!”
Though Caritas often downplays the importance of her role, her friend, Sherryl Laws, was among the first to see, first-hand, just how important she is to the African community. Ten years ago, Laws needed Caritas to translate for one of her new counseling clients. “I needed a translator and she needed a friend,” Laws says. “I told her, ‘We’re going to work together!’” That brought tears to Caritas’ eyes and was the beginning of their long-term collaboration and friendship.
“In the beginning, there was just so much to do,” Laws says. Even though there was help available from area churches, the Catholic Charities Organization, and the Refugee and Immigration Office, it was hard to keep up with all of the Africans pouring into Columbia. “She was like a mother to everybody,” Laws says. “It was amazing to watch her at a meeting. Everyone in the room depended on her to communicate for them [in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili and French],” she continues. “And she was there at the hospital when every single mom had a baby!” The women did not want an impersonal, male translator. They wanted Caritas.
When Caritas came to Columbia as a refugee more than 20 years ago, she, too, had to learn to navigate American life here in Columbia, Mo. — a life that was radically different from what she left behind in Rwanda. She had her three children there, taught at the French Embassy and, before the genocide, lived a life of relative ease and comfort.
“At first it was difficult because back home, we had maids who did the cooking and cleaning for us,” she says. “Here, we have to do everything ourselves, so there’s no time for a social life. I miss having time for myself.” In spite of her 24/7 schedule, she still considers it a privilege to be here. Her gratitude often spills over onto her Facebook page: “I took a shower this morning and I thanked God for the water. I also asked him to clean my inside and my outside.”
The years have ticked by since that first chance encounter with the family balancing groceries on their heads, and Caritas Habimana is still helping African refugee families “organize their lives.” She translates at Agape Fellowship and Christian Fellowship Churches and teaches French to toddlers at La Petite Ecole, Columbia’s French Immersion School. She’s now an American citizen and is quick to attribute any success to God and miracles.
Caritas recently drove Leonard and Speciose Nshimiyimana and their children from Columbia to Kansas City for their U.S. citizenship ceremony. She beamed with the joy of a mother whose child had just aced an important test. Her voice lit up when she said, “Oh my God! That’s my calling — to get them ready for that!”
That’s her calling and her reward because accolades and tangible benefits are not what fuel Caritas Habimana’s life. Perhaps she was destined to play this role among her people in Columbia. After all, her name literally means “giving” and “God exists.” She’s a woman who lives to do just that — give!
“I do it all because of the children’s love,” she says. “It’s like a vitamin that goes down into my body. And,” she adds with a giggle, “that’s good because sometimes, I don’t have time to eat!”
Pam Ingram is the founder and director of Granny’s House, a place where Columbia kids see “God’s love and tender mercies” in action.