By Lori Bredemeyer, Managing Editor
Daniele Ntahonkiriye lived in fear every day. In her hometown, residents are afraid to leave their houses and go into the countryside, and she came to the United States three years ago thinking she could leave behind the war-stricken country and finally shed the constant feeling of terror in her life.
Daniele’s first day at ACU was Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorists hijacked planes and crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands and destroying the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The attack led the United States into a war on terrorism.
Daniele, junior broadcast journalism major from Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi in Africa, now speaks rapid-fire English and is fluent in four languages, but when she first arrived in Abilene, she didn’t know the language well. She had never heard of the World Trade Center and only knew of New York City because her flight had connected there two days before.
Because everything about the United States was so new to her, she said even her ACU campus tour guide couldn’t explain the attacks to Daniele and her brother, Paul.
“We went to the Campus Center, and I remember when she entered, she did not even talk to us,” Daniele said. “She was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ the whole time. She tried to tell us, but we didn’t really know.”
Daniele, who lives in a house near campus with Paul and her sister, Graciella, finally learned in the International Office that New York had been attacked.
Paul said they thought the attack was a common occurrence.
“We thought it was happening every day,” he said. “Everyone was crying, and it was scary, but [later] we started to feel more comfortable.”
Because they were tired from traveling, Daniele said she didn’t call her parents in Burundi until the next day.
When she called home, her mom was crying on the phone, saying ‘praise God’ and that she had ‘lost years to live’ from worrying, thinking she had sent her children to a safer country.
Feeling safe in Burundi is uncommon, and Daniele said most residents stay in their towns and avoid traveling because rebels often attack in the country. Since 1993, about 200,000 Burundians have died in the fight between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, according to the CIA’s Web site.
Daniele knows many people who have been attacked, and she said she’s afraid for her parents and her other brother, Alain, who still live in Burundi. Her mom works for an electric company, and her dad is on the board of directors of a bank, and Daniele said her father travels into the countryside often. Alain also has to leave town to get to his school, which rebels attacked in 1997, killing a student in the dorm.
“Every time my brother has to go back to school, we don’t sleep here,” she said. “We pray for him for the whole night until the next day when we’re like, ‘Thank God mom didn’t call to say something happened.'”
When Daniele came to the United States, she said she hoped to leave war behind her.
“This war is following me and my brother and my sister,” she thought after the attacks on the United States. “Maybe if we go to another country, something will happen. But my dad never tried to discourage us. He said we’ll be fine.”
Daniele felt enough confidence that she would be safe that she returned to New York City Sept. 9-12, 2004, traveling with three other students and a journalism faculty member to the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“I told my mom I was going to New York, and she was excited,” she said. “But I didn’t tell her when [until later]. I said, ‘Mom, you know I’ll be in New York on Sept. 11,’ and she said, ‘Don’t go.'”
Although her mom was afraid for her to go, Daniele said she was only slightly nervous, especially about flying on Sept. 9.
“I didn’t know if I would feel comfortable being in an airplane a day before, two days before that,” she said. “When we were in the airplane … I tried to think about those people, how you’re going on a business trip, you’re going for something exciting, and you don’t know who you are riding with.
“I just tried not to think about it and just focus on the trip.”
While in New York City, the group attended the Saturday memorial service at Ground Zero.
Daniele watched the first memorial service on TV two years ago, but she said actually being there and listening in person felt different.
“Even to see it on TV was sad, but you don’t understand how sad it is to be around people, to be around them crying,” she said. “It’s hard to see men in tears; this man behind me was crying like a baby. … To be in such pain, I would not wish for anyone to be like that.”
Daniele has not been home since she arrived here three years ago, and her mom has visited only once. Despite the unrest of the past few years, she said she has not considered quitting school to return to Burundi.
“I’ve never wanted to go back and stay there,” she said, “but I’ve wanted to go and hug my parents and come back.
“You come here for a goal; you have a goal, you know you are lucky to be here, to be safe. And even with what’s happening, you still know it’s better than being back home.”