OSU student survives brush with death to complete doctorate


CORVALLIS - In a country ravaged by bloody civil war, with dead bodies piled in the streets and people living in ramshackle refugee camps scrounging for daily rations of beans and rice, it was a fax machine, of all things, that saved the lives of Froduald Harelimana and his five-year-old son.

It was three-and-a-half years ago when Harelimana, a graduate student at Oregon State University, became stranded in his native country of Rwanda. The personable 36-year-old had put his studies on hold and returned home to see his ailing wife, Odette, who would die before he left Rwanda. Ethnic violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis, which had simmered for years, erupted into massive violence during that summer of 1994, effectively shutting down the country.

With little food and only a few hard-to-cash traveler's checks in his pocket, Harelimana and his son, Symphorien, began an eight-month odyssey that eventually would bring them back to Corvallis - to a university and a community that adopted the small family as its own.

This winter, another chapter in this heart-tugging story came to an end when Harelimana successfully defended his doctoral dissertation and earned a Ph.D. in education. So, what comes next?

"Ah, what now?" Harelimana said with a smile. "Whatever opportunities in life arise, I am open to them. It is not a question of what I would like to do with my doctorate, it is a question of what can I do with it."

Harelimana does not like to dwell on his past. History and life, he says, are a continuum and he is more interested in what may happen to him today. Still, he can't help but marvel at the circumstances through which he escaped the clutches of death in Rwanda and returned to Oregon State University.

It began with a fax.

On July 25, 1994, after the Rwandan capital had been bombed, Harelimana and his son fled to southern Rwanda - to an area controlled by French troops. The bombing followed them as they crossed the border into Zaire, joining thousands of other refugees fleeing the indiscriminate killing that left their path littered with bodies.

In Zaire, they lived in the streets of Bukavu, with no shelter, no wood for a fire, and no blankets. Both father and son slept in their clothes. For two weeks, Harelimana tried desperately to gain access to a fax machine so he could seek help. And finally, at an office of the United Nations, he found one. The $12 charge for a one-minute fax was highway robbery, but it was probably the best investment he ever made.

His gripping plea, faxed to OSU education professor Jodi Engel, was simple and to the point:

"I'm glad to inform you that by a great miracle, I am still alive and a refugee in Zaire," the fax read. "My wife died two months ago and I am with my son.

"Save my life."

Engel and Irma Delson, an adviser in OSU's Office of International Education, immediately began networking, rallying the campus and community for support to help save the lives of Froduald and Symphorien. As thousands of dollars poured in, they began seeking travel arrangements and ways to ease the bureaucratic red tape of the immigration process.

With help from missionary organizations, they arranged for the Harelimanas to leave Zaire and travel to Nairobi, then Paris, and finally to San Francisco. There they met Delson and a group of friends who escorted the exhausted pair back to Corvallis.

Today, Harelimana chooses not to look back upon the perils of his journey but, he says, he will never forget the efforts that the people of OSU and Corvallis made on his behalf.

"I have benefitted from so many individuals and so many organizations," he said, shaking his head. "They provided me with housing, clothing, furniture and moral support. The School of Education loaned me a computer, an office and a mailbox. Many students at OSU helped take care of my son. I have been totally integrated into the community in so many ways, in so many activities. I will never forget it.

"My son and I are alive! I have been able to grow intellectually and emotionally at Oregon State, and I have been able to learn. I have finished school, but my education...my education will never end."

What lies ahead for Dr. Froduald Harelimana remains to be seen. Life, he points out again, is a continuum and it is more important to look ahead than behind. He would like to find a job where he can teach, and where he can learn. In addition to his native tongue, he is fluent in English and French.

"I would dearly love to help Froduald find a job in Oregon," said Wayne Haverson, director of the School of Education at OSU. "He is a rare individual - compassionate, intellectual, spiritual and gentle, and he has raised a son on his own through difficult times. He has so much to offer."

Harelimana also wants to pay back the university and the community which he says, "saved my life." He spent three years writing a book - not about his experiences, but about the history and customs of his native Rwanda. He self-published the book, "Rwanda: Society and Culture of a Nation in Transition," and has provided copies to local libraries and book stores.

It is the only affordable way he knows how to say thank you.

Now Harelimana, 40, and his nine-year-old son, Symphorien, are looking ahead to the next chapter in their lives. OSU's newest alum is mainly concerned with providing security and stability for his son and though he has no clear idea of a career path, he is not especially worried.

"My ordeal has given me a kind of vaccine for life," he said. "I feel I can deal with anything."