When Jeanne Celestine Lakin met her future husband, Paul, on a breakfast date in college, the getting-to-know-each-other conversation took on uncommon weight.
The Rwandan native had immigrated to the United States a decade prior, and had rarely spoken of what had come before. But over long coffee-shop conversations, she slowly revealed how, as a 9-year-old in 1994, she narrowly escaped the fate handed to as many as 1 million other members of Rwanda’s Tutsi ethnic minority, who had been exterminated as part of that country’s 100-day, government-sponsored genocide. It was the first time she divulged the onslaught of sexual and physical abuse that had followed her from the mountains of East Africa to the American Midwest.
“I’m going to give a lot of credit to him,” Lakin, now 35, says today of her husband helping her begin to find peace. “I’m really able to live my life because of forgiveness. I’m able to connect with people, see good in people, to be able to do this work with orphans like myself, and I think that’s my purpose—to reach out to those who are vulnerable.”
Now residents of Spring, the couple recently founded One Million Orphans, a nonprofit devoted to improving the lives of the 153 million parentless little ones worldwide through school assistance, medical aid, and more. It’s just one way, along with Paul’s love, that she says she’s finally started to heal the wounds of the past, and, improbably, forgive those who’ve wronged her.
To understand the full horror of what Lakin has endured and her journey to where she is today, you will have to read her recent memoir, A Voice in the Darkness. In it she lays it all out: how she, at 9, witnessed men hack her father to death with machetes after stumbling upon her mother’s corpse; the incident in which she was trafficked across the border and almost sold into marriage in exchange for a cow; the time she, by now 10, entered domestic servitude to a cruel drunk; a moment of hope when she was placed with a well-to-do foster family, before her foster father began sexually abusing her; the mixed opportunity of immigrating to the United States at 14 with said abusive foster family, and, upon arrival, abruptly converting to Mormonism; the teenage years she spent learning English by listening to Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child while working at a red-sauce Italian restaurant to both provide for her orphan siblings back in Africa and pay her way through college.
If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. Lakin says the first draft of the book—co-written with her husband—was so raw, it gave her editor nightmares. But looking at her now, all smiles and light behind the eyes, you would never know everything she’s endured. There’s no desire for revenge, no hatred. That’s because forgiveness, she’s learned, is not about letting someone off the hook for their crimes—it’s about freeing oneself from one's suffering. You have to, she says, in order to move on. “Nelson Mandela talked about how you can be free in the world,” Lakin explains, “but if you don’t forgive, you are still a prisoner.”
Before the genocide, Lakin and her nine siblings lived a comfortable life in a well-respected Tutsi family. Her father, a local businessman, would bring her doctor’s uniforms to nourish her aspirations of helping others. “I had all these dreams in me,” Lakin says. “There was no limitation on what I could become because I had so much support from my family.”
It was in 1994 that relations between Rwanda’s largest ethnic groups—the Hutus and the Tutsis—reached their nadir. Both peoples had lived in relative harmony for centuries, but European colonizers—first from Germany, then Belgium—pitted the two against each other to maintain power. Even after the Europeans packed up and left, Lakin writes, the decades preceding the genocide were “an incubator of revenge” between ethnic groups. By the time her mother got wise and started removing the batteries from the family radio, broadcasts were pumping out propaganda that painted Tutsis as an inhuman, alien threat and urged Hutus to leave no Tutsi man, woman, or child alive.
“You know, they called us cockroaches and snakes,” Lakin explains, drawing parallels to the Holocaust. “We were dehumanized in a sense that it allowed somebody to pick up a machete and wield it to end someone’s life. It was this evil that came over people that I’m still trying to understand—there’s no way you can give a shape and a description to the genocide.”
Even so, that task is one Lakin first attempted in journals as soon as she was “free” from her foster family, in college. For a time, she even lived with a kind Hutu woman—someone “from the ethnicity that wiped away my entire family”—learning that the actions of individuals need not taint whole groups. Then she met Paul, who encouraged her to seek treatment for PTSD. Eventually she started giving public talks about the genocide and finally, last year, published her memoir.
Now she and Paul have a 2-year-old boy to remind them why their cause is so important, although, to be sure, One Million Orphans remains fledgling. Through a combination of book sales and donations, the couple has cobbled together funds to assist roughly 100 kids so far. Lakin delights in pulling out pictures of kids in Burundi beaming in their new, crisp school uniforms. She and Paul are already contemplating buying goats or farm land so the orphanages can sustain themselves. The lofty figure of one million remains the goal.
Recently Lakin had a conversation with a mother concerned about adopting a child who had experienced sexual abuse. Lakin shared her own story and left the mother with a powerful piece of advice. “We’re not all broken,” she said. “Everything is not lost. Sometimes you just have to give people a chance to live.”