(Zera) I was six. And… sorry, I get emotional. Sorry.
(VO) Sometimes, the worst that can happen… happens.
(Zera) They came to my house wanting to kill my dad. So, we fled with my mom.
(VO) She was just one little girl.
(Zera) When we were running in the backyard with mom, we saw the house was on fire. We didn’t know if dad made it out or not. So it was just my mom and the kids and… (cries) I don’t talk about it because I just get so emotional. Sorry.
(VO) She was just one frightened, confused, angry little girl.
(Zera) Yeah. I actually hated God. Yeah. I hated God so much.
(VO) “Stories of Hope” is a podcast about people who meet needs, build relationships, and change lives.
(VO) In this episode… every person hopes for something better.
(Zera) I grew up in Tanzania—in a refugee camp.
(VO) Especially little girls like Zera.
(Zera) And the most thing I remember is they shouted at us. The people, they were like, “refugees, go back. Go back. Go back, we don’t want you.” (cries) I’m crying again. Sorry.
(VO) No one wants to leave home forever. No one wants to lose everything they love. No one wants to be Zera.
(Zera) So, I told God, “I want to know if you are really real,” and “I will know you are a real God and can hear my prayers if you take me out of the refugee camp.”
(VO) This is a story about survival—and better things. This is Stories of Hope. Today’s episode: “Zera’s Promise”.
(VO) Her name is Zera. Zera Ntahonirukiye. (Nah-honee-roo-kee’-uh) And yes, she has to spell her name. A lot.
(Zera) It’s N-T-A-H-O-N-I-R-U-K-I-Y-E.
(VO) Her name and her story come from another world.
(Zera) I was born in Burundi.
(VO) … a place where twenty years ago, she was a little girl with a target on her back.
(Zera) So, my mom is a Tutsi. My dad is a Hutu. And you can’t marry. The two tribes are fighting, they don’t like each other, it’s against the law, you know. So, when we were home, during the civil war, we were not prepared when they came to my house wanting to kill my dad.
(VO) Zera Ntahonirukye became a refugee one night in 2001. It took less than thirty seconds. A knock on the door… her father yelling “run”… and then the smell of smoke. They all ran as fast and as far as they could. Zera remembers trying to keep up with her mom and sister. She remembers worrying about what happened to her dad. And she remembers thinking, “I don’t deserve this.”
(Zera) I grew up going to Sunday School. And I knew all the rules. And I felt like I was a good kid. So, in my mind I was safe. And when that happened, I was like, “Are you serious? I prayed to you. I served you. I went to Sunday School.” We’re supposed to be protected from evil because we were on God’s side.
(Zera) But it doesn’t work that way. I had to learn that.
(VO) There were four of them. Zera, her mother, and her two sisters. They walked for days—Zera doesn’t remember how many.
(Zera) Tanzania was the safest and closest to us, that’s why we went there. And the police came to get us. They didn’t even give us food. I was sick and hungry. They told everybody to go back where they came from.
(VO) Border police picked them up, then dropped them off at a refugee camp. She was scared. It was raining. Zera’s mother had to scavenge materials just to piece together a shelter for them to sleep under.
(Zera) My mom was up all night and she’s working hard to build a tent for us to sleep. It was something to be thankful for.
(VO) This would be Zera’s home for the next ten years.
(Zera) I cursed God so much when I was in the refugee camp. I was mad, you know. And sometimes I felt like Joseph—you know the story. How, the whole story of Joseph, everything he went through, his own brothers betraying him, it took forever. When he was in prison, he grew older. And it took forever. But God showed up.
(VO) Ten years in a refugee camp… and Zera remembers two good days. The first was when she was 9 years old and she was reunited with her father.
(Zera) It was very hard for me to recognize him. I had to calm down and wait for mom to say something. And then my mom told us and I was like, “What?!”
(VO) And the second good day—she was 16. It was the day she and her family—her whole family—left the refugee camp.
(Zera) The UN places your case with a country, the country sees if they want you or not, so, we moved through the process, investigation and all that… and they just brought us here. Straight to here.
(VO) “Here” was a never-before-heard-of place called San Diego…
(VO) … a city 9,000 miles from Burundi. For Zera, it might as well have been 9-million miles.
(Zera) I was dizzy. Every time I stood outside, I just felt dizzy like, with all tjhe tall buildings, lights everywhere, traffic lights… traffic lights and stop signs? I remember one time I was going to school and there was a stop sign and I thought it was for me, not the cars. Obviously, everybody has to stop to be aware. But I just stood there forever. And the people are like, “Go!” and I’m like, “No, you’re trying to trick me so you can run over me.” And I just stood there forever until all the cars cleared. Then I just sprinted. It was so funny. Now I’m like, I f somebody was watching me, it must have been so funny.
(VO) A refugee resettlement agency helped her family some…
(Zera) They gave us a case manager who spoke our language who helped us with food stamps, rent…
(VO) … but the school system placed her where they placed all their 16-year old refugees.
(VO) Zero English. Yeah. I didn’t have an education. But they put me in 9th grade. And I was like, “What the heck? Ninth?” I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer and they put me in a computer class. What do I do? I was just sitting there and I see kids typing. It was just embarrassing. And I was just, like, watching them.
(VO) It was a volunteer from a nearby church who taught Zera English. There was no class or curriculum—just a relationship with card games, conversation, and time. Lots of time.
(Zera) There was this girl. She would come bring all these games and she would teach and speak with us so, God bless her and all these people who have invested in us.
(VO) It only took three years. Zera learned English, graduated high school, and then discovered Gen Send—a summer-long program that puts young people together with new churches.
(VO) With Gen Send, Zera lived and served with The Hill Church in San Diego. She helped them build relationships with neighborhood kids who were new to America by leading soccer camps.
(Zera) I know the kids here who speak my language. And so, Gen Send was very good for me.
(VO) It was her first chance to hold up her end of that long-ago bargain she’d made with God.
(Zera) When I was in the refugee camp, we had to make a deal so I’d know that He’s really there for me and He’s listening to my prayers because I was young and my faith was still young. Now, I’m more familiar with Christianity. You just keep having the hope and faith because God is a God of promises, you know.
(VO) Now, Zera is going to college. She’s studying International Relations. In a life that’s been full of hard things, that might be the hardest thing she’s ever done.
(Zera) I don’t do books. So, yeah going to college was hard.
(VO) But it doesn’t matter. She knows… she will help refugees. She will be a missionary. She will keep her promise. And she knows all that because God has proven to her that she has promise.
(Zera) One thing I know—when I was young, is that in my heart what I prayed to God is that if He could help me, I was going to be like those people who helped me. And I know God is going to come through. He has done it in the past, He has been there with me my whole life so… we’re good.
(VO) This has been “Stories of Hope” from Send Relief. Today’s episode… “Zera’s Promise”.
(VO) There are refugees just like Zera in most every community in North America. You and your church can meet needs and build witnessing relationships with them. For tips on how, go to send-relief-dot-org. And to learn more about how Gen Send is equipping young people like Zera to share Christ and help start churches in cities all over North America, go to send-relief-dot-org-slash-gen-send… that’s g-e-n-s-e-n-d.
(VO) And join us in two weeks for another episode of “Stories of Hope.”