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Sep 25, 2015

Born in Rwanda, Benoit (pronounced Ben-WAH) Krussell spent years living in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. “I grew up everywhere,” he said.

An attentive student at school, Benoit knew he was smart. He was always at the top of his class. But without parents to pay school tuition or support his efforts, his teachers told him that it was unlikely he would finish school. Their words became a challenge, and he desperately wanted to prove them wrong.

“I had hopes for a new life in the U.S.,” he said. “I didn’t know where my future would be, but I pictured it being good. Somehow I knew that success was coming, but I didn’t know how to achieve it.”

He was 17 when he was resettled in Michigan. A team from Bethany Christian Services welcomed him at the airport, and he sensed that his life was about to change. When he learned that he could pursue his education for free, he knew everything was going to be OK.

Nearly 10 years later, Benoit is a college graduate and a recently minted U.S. citizen. He is also a youth specialist with Bethany’s Transitional Living Center in Grand Rapids, and he is “giving back” at Bethany by helping other refugee youth.

Home Life

With ongoing reports about the current Syrian refugee crisis, many Americans are now familiar with images of refugee camps that range from massive tent cities to environments that resemble something closer to a prison. Benoit went from years of living in constant chaos and danger in a camp to a safe foster home where he had his own room and his own space. That tangible sense of security gave him a place he could retreat to, a foundation he could build on.

The structure of living in a home, with a family, changed everything for Benoit. Everything about having parents and siblings was new, and he noticed everything.

“I learned what a family is and how it operates,” he said. “I had siblings that referred to me as their brother, not a half-brother or a foster brother. I had a dad who bought me my first razor. He taught me how to shave and how to drive a car. I had Thanksgiving with one group of relatives and Christmas with another. I never would have experienced these things otherwise.”

A home and a family also provided the context where Benoit picked up key cultural and interpersonal cues. For example, he was fascinated by the way his foster parents modeled conflict resolution.

“When they disagreed, the dad would say something, then the mom would say something,” he said. “In the Central African Republic, when the man speaks, that’s it—it’s done. But here, it was interesting to see that the mom had something to say, and they worked together to reach a conclusion.”

He also paid special attention to his foster father’s role in the family. “It was interesting to see the dad cooking meals for the family, not just the mom,” he said. “I saw the dad go to work every day to provide for the family and then come home and interact with the kids. It made me want to be the kind of man that provides for his family and includes the children in fun things like going hiking and camping together.”

Benoit is especially grateful for the way his foster family invested in his personal, spiritual, and academic development at a pivotal time in his life. They encouraged his musical talent by providing guitar lessons, which he found therapeutic. They nurtured his faith by keeping him involved at church. They provided after-school tutors to help him learn English and ensured not only that he completed his homework but that he also understood his assignments.

Home Country

After he graduated from high school, Benoit was thrilled to receive a scholarship to continue his education at Western Michigan University. Today, he holds a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary health services. He hopes to one day work toward health care reform in a third-world country and help the children there go to school.

“Six other youth from Rwanda came to the U.S. with me,” Benoit said, “but I was the only one from that group to finish high school and go to college. I ask myself why this did not happen for the others. Why only me? I believe the family environment where Bethany placed me made it possible. I am so grateful, and that’s why I came back to work at Bethany, so I can help other refugee youth just like me.”

Benoit is working to find foster families for 13 youth, ages 15–18, who are essentially starting over. One day he might show them how to use an ATM machine; the next, he might talk to them about how to manage their health and what to do if they become ill. The youth know they can trust his counsel because he understands their experience like few others could.

“If you’ve never been to a refugee camp, you might not know that the youth had maybe one pair of pants and maybe no shoes,” he said. “So you might not understand why, when he arrives here, he doesn’t want to use all the clothes you bought for him—why he just wants to wear the same pants each day. I know what these youth have experienced, and I understand where they’re coming from. I know to be patient with them and that it’s a work in progress.”

Benoit knows this because, after almost 10 years, his story is opening a new chapter. “I am Rwandan by origin,” he said. “You can’t become a citizen there until you are 18, and I left there when I was a child. I lived in camps in other countries in Africa, but those places weren’t home either. In May 2015, I became a U.S. citizen—I finally have a home country. I have an address.”

This sense of hope and belonging is what he loves to pass on to the youth. “I want them to know they have support and a bright future ahead,” he said. “The sky is the limit.”

If you live in Kent or Kalamazoo counties in the state of Michigan and you are interested in becoming a foster family for refugee youth, please visit bethany.org/refugeefostercare or call 616.224.7540 for more information.