During a taxi ride in New York City recently I received a text message with a photo attached. The picture that slowly came into focus was of a tall lean older man and a short elderly woman whose eyes shone with vitality. She had an unmistakable resemblance to the sender of the text, a young man named Justin.
A chill went through me. Born in the Congo, Justin had lived as an orphan for nearly two decades. He was sure his parents were gone forever. On the small cell phone screen, the photos were accompanied with the exclamation "yahhooooo!!!!"
Justin was only 13 when soldiers descended on his remote village in the Congo. His last most vivid memory of his family was being separated from them as his father yelled for Justin to run and not look back while his neighbors were attacked.
Justin kept running. Eventually he found his way to Nairobi where he joined the ranks of the city's growing refugee population. He slept on the streets and lived day to day, narrowly avoiding attacks and other dangers that many young, homeless refugee children face.
He wasn't legally supposed to be in Nairobi and had no way to work or go to school. (This is not uncommon by the way. I just heard a statistic that about 50 percent of refugee children who flee to Nairobi do not attend school. Justin was one of them.) As the years passed with no word of any surviving family members and the death toll in the Congo mounted into the millions, his hope began to dim that there were any survivors. The losses that most refugees experience are irreversible. Home, family, and friends often disappear forever.
I met Justin in 2005 in Nairobi while I was establishing RefugePoint, an international non-profit organization that provides lasting solutions for the world's most vulnerable refugees. He immediately made an impression on me because of his unstinting willingness to help others in his community, including a younger orphaned boy whom Justin had taken under his wing.
In 2009 Justin had a chance to come to the United States through our government's Refugee Resettlement Program (the younger boy, Dan, came shortly after). He joined over three million other refugees who have come to the U.S. over the last few decades through this program, a growing solution for those at risk who have no other options to survive safely. It was a wonderful moment when Justin greeted me at the door of his new home in St. Louis. He proudly ushered me into his clean apartment, which was quite different from the little lightless shack in Nairobi I had visited months earlier.
Righteous Pictures documented Justin's journey in the film The Last Survivor that follows the lives of four different survivors of genocide and mass atrocities. (You can see for yourself what an irrepressible smile he has. Watch this video).
Finally, with opportunity at hand, Justin's talent for survival was transformed into success. He found a job translating at a local hospital. He started attending college. And then the small miracles began. He learned that two of his siblings had survived. He returned to Africa, met a girl, and got married. Soon he will be able to apply for U.S. citizenship and have a new country to call his own. And then the biggest one: a friend sent him a photo of his parents, alive in the Congo.
When I looked at the photo of his mom and dad, what I knew of Justin's life flashed through my mind and landed on one thought: he's not an orphan anymore. Justin reunited briefly with his parents a month ago. Some of his losses, at least, have been reversed.