By: Zoe Noakes. Interviews by Rachael Lauer and Doreen Umutesi.   |   Posted: April 22, 2024

Orphaned during the genocide, Emma found hope through Christ, forgave his family's killers and now leads a national ministry helping kids in poverty.

How Genocide Orphans Became Inspiring Leaders in Rwanda

Orphaned during the genocide, Emma found hope through Christ, forgave his family's killers and now leads a national ministry helping kids in poverty.

Written by Zoe Noakes. Interviews by Rachael Lauer and Doreen Umutesi.
Photos by Emily Turner.

Before the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, there was a saying: “No orphans in our community.”

It’s part of Rwandan culture for neighbors and friends to welcome in children who have lost their parents. But in the aftermath of the genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed, more than 95,000 children1 were orphaned.

It took just 100 days.

Emmanuel, known as Emma, was one of them. The 5-year-old boy was visiting his aunt and uncle when the long-simmering violence suddenly erupted. His uncle, a Hutu, kissed his wife, a Tutsi, hugged his children and sent them into the bush to hide.

If he hadn’t, he may have been forced to kill his own family.

Emma (portrayed by a child actor) hides in the forest.
Emma (portrayed by a child actor) hid in the forest to escape the militia and gangs of attackers targeting the Tutsi people.

On the second day of hiding came horrific news. Along with thousands of others, his parents and siblings had sought refuge at a church.

But the mob found them.

His mother and father were killed; his siblings were missing.

In the days that followed, the violence was so frequent and horrific that people begged for death by bullet rather than machete.

A Deadly Game of Hide-and-Seek

Numb with grief, starving, unsure if they would be alive in the morning, Emma, his aunt and his cousins hid among the banana trees in the dense bush for weeks.

"I was never sure if I would live until the next day," he says.

Every day, they changed location. The bodies they came across were a grim reminder to keep moving. His uncle brought food when able. "He did all he could to help us survive," says Emma.

The dense trees and bushes where Rwanda's Tutsi people hid to survive.
More than 75%2 of Rwanda’s Tutsi people were killed during the genocide. Those who survived often hid in the bush for weeks, concealing themselves amongst the dense trees and bushes.

After weeks of hiding, they were rescued. Soldiers took them to a camp for survivors. There, Emma had a joyful reunion with his siblings who had last been seen at the massacre. An uncle took them in, as well as dozens of other children who had lost their families.

"We were living in one house with close to 40 kids," says Emma. "My uncle did his best, but it was a struggle to find basic needs such as food, school supplies, clothing. By that time, Compassion opened the center, and by God's grace I was registered."

"We Have to Have the Courage to Change"

In 1994, Wess Stafford was in his first year as president of Compassion International. Every nonprofit organization he knew was leaving Rwanda. The question came: What was Compassion going to do?

Wess knew the "right" answer. Leave. Wait until the country had stabilized before returning to help. But, he explains, “I fasted and prayed for a whole weekend, and God would give me absolutely no peace. I was thinking: 'We've never been more needed than now.... We have to have the courage to change something, rather than get out.'"

This decision meant pausing long-term child development to shift to rescue hurting children. Compassion would help children reunite with family members — a daunting task when hundreds of thousands were killed and 2 million had fled the country.

Wess wrote to sponsors: "As soon as we can, we'll get back to running the program we've developed and established across the world. I can't tell you how long it will be. But I know you are more needed now than ever before."

"It Felt Like Home"

His decision meant that Emma — a grieving 5-year-old in a too-big T-shirt — could walk into the Compassion center at his local church. "The center director gave me a warm greeting, and it felt a little like coming home," he says. "Little did I know the doors God was opening."

At 5, Emma felt hopeless and timid. Some days he sat apart from the other children and cried. Most of all, he was desperate for love.

"That was the time I needed someone to pray with me. That was the time that I needed someone to stand with me to affirm me," he says. "After losing your dad and losing your mom, it's hard to find someone to tell you that they love you, are praying for you and taking care of you."

A man on the other side of the world helped fill this role for Emma: his sponsor, David, from the United Kingdom. His letters and photos were a lifeline Emma grasped with both hands.

"He would write back to me saying, 'Son, you're doing amazing. I'm praying for you, and I love you.' He was like a father figure to me," Emma says.

At the child development center, Emma could play, sing, dance and be a child again. He also began attending church. As the years went by, the consistent love and support saw Emma slowly transform from a timid, traumatized child to a self-assured young man. At 12 years old, he received Christ as his personal Savior.

When I met Jesus, he washed away all my tears," says Emma. "He changed me completely.

Rwandan children pray at their child development center.
A new generation of Rwandan children pray at their child development center, the place where Emma discovered God’s love.

"When You Reconcile With God, You Can Reconcile With Others"

The center had given him a Bible, and the more Emma read, the more his faith grew. He began planning and setting goals for his future. And, incredibly, he learned to forgive those who had killed his parents. Some were former neighbors, people they'd laughed and shared with.

Emma teaches a child.
Discovering God’s love through the teaching and care of Compassion’s local church partner transformed Emma’s life and continues to transform children today.

"Reconciling with God helped me to reconcile with other people, including those who killed my family and other relatives. If you don't forgive, you carry those people wherever you go. It becomes a burden," says Emma. "Just imagine walking around, having that burden on your shoulders. But the moment you forgive is the moment you receive peace."

For Emma, forgiveness was a journey to freedom. "Of course, forgiveness didn't come at once. It was a process," he says. "But that process started when I was connected to Christ."

"How About the Rest?"

With the food, mentoring and school supplies he received through Compassion, Emmanuel began to excel at school. His center paid for his education, including university fees for his bachelor's degree in computer science.

"I am so blessed that I was able to go through the hands of good parents, of good mentors, of social workers, of good people," says Emma. "The little things they gave me, I'm giving back to children."

Emma speaks to a group of children at a local child development center.
Emma speaks to a group of children at a local child development center, encouraging them just as he was once encouraged.

Now, as a partnership facilitator for Compassion Rwanda, he supports local church partners to ensure children are known, loved and protected. Along with several other Compassion alumni, he also founded the Compassion Alumni Ministry. Today, it has over 10,000 active members. Emma proudly serves as the leader.

"We are a product of compassion, so we should demonstrate that compassion as well," he says. "Our main purpose is to create a movement of impact for children living in poverty in Rwanda."

Emma meets with the Compassion Alumni Ministry, which he co-founded and leads.
Emma meets with the Compassion Alumni Ministry, which he co-founded and leads. The network is dedicated to rallying the church to support vulnerable children.

The Compassion Alumni Ministry helps local churches develop young people. As a network, they run micro-finance savings groups and even sponsor children with Compassion.

"We seek to be the voice for the voiceless ones," explains Emma. "[Our ministry] is in response to the question, 'How about the rest of them?'"

Overcoming Devastation Through Forgiveness

Two decades after a nervous Wess Stafford declared Compassion would remain during the genocide, he stood in a ballroom with Rwandan alumni who had just graduated from university.

Some shared how they still remembered the swoosh of the machetes; how they had fallen to the ground and played dead. "But they thanked God for His goodness," marvels Wess. "They thanked God for the power of forgiveness."

Emma looks out over the hills of Rwanda.
Emma looks out over the hills of Rwanda.

When Emma thinks back to himself as a terrified child hiding in the bushes, he can see God crouched with him.

Today, a generation of orphans like him have become leaders in Rwanda — a country other nations now look to as inspiration for overcoming devastation.

"I remember my father’s legacy, a man who loved Jesus and demonstrated His generosity to all he encountered. I endeavor to work in that legacy, spreading the hope of Jesus to everyone I encounter," says Emma.

"When I see what Compassion did, I moved from hopelessness to hope and being a hope giver. Jesus changed me to change others. He transformed me to transform others."

Statistics sources:



Give Hope to Children in Desperate Situations

two children sitting on a doorstep

Help protect and support children facing high-risk situations, just like Emma once did.

two children sitting on a doorstep