Selemani Rubanguru Johnson was only 9 when forced to flee his home in Kilgali, Rwanda, after ethnic tensions in that Central African nation erupted into the notorious 1994 genocide that left millions of Tutsi tribe members slaughtered by their rival Hutu tribesmen.
Mr. Johnson’s biological parents were members of opposing tribes. His mother, a high school teacher, was a Tutsi; his father, a professional singer, was a Hutu. Both were killed during the war.
“A herd of us got away,” he said. “We crossed the border to [the former] Zaire.” They found a refugee camp, and he was placed in a children’s area.
While living in the refugee camp, Mr. Johnson met Mildred Johnson, a United Methodist Women member and a home-school coordinator from Dallas, Texas, volunteering in Bukavu refugee camp with United Methodist Committee on Relief in September 1995.
Ms. Johnson proudly recalls how this child was different from the other refugee children. He knew very little English, but he was ready to learn the language. While most of the children enjoyed listening to Ms. Johnson, this child also wanted to help her carry her books. In broken English, he told Ms. Johnson, “I want to go to school.”
“I knew that I had to find a way to get that boy home,” Ms. Johnson said.
With monetary assistance and immigration intervention from Dallas millionaire Ross Perot, the child was sent by African Bishop Onema Fama to Dallas on Sept. 10, 1996. Ms. Johnson completed mounds of paperwork, but after a year, she was able to adopt him as her son. She enrolled him in public school, and he excelled as a student.
In Rwanda, Mr. Johnson had attended Catholic Church with his parents, but in Dallas he grew to love the United Methodist Church. He even joined the church and asked to be baptized in a baptismal pool by his pastor, the Rev. L. Charles Stovall.
A “wiz kid” in school, he perfected his English and began to learn Spanish. Mr. Johnson then knew five languages: the dialect spoken in Kilgali, Rwanda; Swahili, French, English and Spanish. He completed high school within three years, receiving a $1,000 scholarship from the Dallas Independent School District for being an exceptional student. Following graduation, Mr. Johnson enrolled in United Methodist-related Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.
Mr. Johnson decided to serve his adopted country and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was stationed in San Diego, Calif., and held the rank of petty officer second class. While in the Navy Mr. Johnson was also a search and rescue swimmer. He received an honorable discharge in 2011 and won several trophies and awards as a disabled veteran. He married Tori Gray in the fall of 2011. The happy couple is building a house in the Dallas area.
Now 27, Mr. Johnson has also adopted an optimist’s motto on life: “Do not be ungrateful about life but be grateful for what you do have,” he said. “Instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the positive. You will have blessings come your way.
“When I was a little boy in the refugee camp there were a few missionaries and volunteers who visited the camp,” Mr. Johnson said. “There were people who treated me like a ‘dirty, dumb and poor little African boy.’ I could tell they felt sorry for the children and felt our situation was hopeless. But I’m thankful that Ma saw something in me, and that gave me hope. We developed a love for each other. Many Christian people made it possible for me to come to the United States. My Dallas church family embraced me and showed me love.”
Denise Johnson Stovall is a freelance writer and longtime leader in United Methodist Women in the Dallas, Texas, area. Her husband, the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, was Mildred Johnson’s pastor when Selemani arrived in the United States. The Stovalls accompanied Ms. Johnson to court to secure young Selemani’s adoption.