Anselme Sadiki's life is filled with miracles, not the least of which are the miracles that happen every day at the Children's Home Society of Idaho where he serves as executive director. The Boise-based CHS operates the Warm Springs Counseling Centers, providing emotional, mental and behavioral healthcare to children, regardless of their parents' ability to pay.
Anselme's own journey to a sense of worth, nurturing and advocacy is rather stunning. He'll celebrate his 50th birthday this October, but in that half-century he has already faced some of the world's greatest challenges.
Let's start with your early years in Congo.
I was born into a family of 11 children. I was third oldest, but when my two older sisters passed away, that made me the oldest. My mother raised all of the children and never went to school. My father worked with the Belgian government in the 1940s, 1950s, right up until the time that Congo gained its independence in 1960. He was what was called an agricultural agent, helping to set up coffee and tea plantations.
How many of your brothers and sisters are still alive?
There are six of us.
I guess the first miracle in your life was surviving childhood.
In my village, you were lucky to have survived to be 5 years old because of malaria, chicken pox and the like, because there were no vaccinations. To be able to grow to young adulthood was the first miracle, the first of many. And then, to finish high school was a huge achievement. The village actually gives you a title, "The Graduate." And the parents are known as "Parents of the Graduate." Because I was a Graduate, I started to teach. I taught French, geography, history and a number of other courses. I was 17 years old, and they called me "Professor." In 1986, I took a nationwide exam to determine if I might qualify for university. Twenty-five thousand students took the test and I was third in the nation. But I still couldn't go, because my parents couldn't afford it, so I continued to teach. But then, one day, my entire village collected enough money for me to go to university. They sold their chickens, all of their bananas, mangoes and avocados. They said my going to university was like having someone from the village become president of the nation.
Let's move forward to 1990 when you were in college. It was a time of extreme unrest.
Unrest across much of Africa. A sweeping force of democratic change. That was the time when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. But Congo President Mobutu made a tactical mistake by inviting Mandela to come to our country. When Mandela spoke, you could feel the intensity, you got goosebumps. Back at school, students began organizing protests. Professors went on strike because they had gone as long as nine months without being paid. Students said, "Enough is enough. Something has to change." Soon thereafter, some of the students began to disappear. It turns out that Mobutu had put spies in the university. Students disappeared, and professors were imprisoned. And then one night, the electricity was cut off and helicopters of presidential guards flew in. And they began killing. Not with guns, but with knives.
Did you lose many friends?
I lost so many of them.
I know that your school was burned to the ground by the presidential guards, and that soon after, you ended up in a refugee camp in northern Kenya.
I found some work with a charitable organization in Nairobi, working as a translator in French and Swahili.
Who were your first contacts from the United States?
In Nairobi, I met an American family, Roger and Sonya from Iowa. Roger was a schoolteacher who had applied and been offered a job at Idaho State University. Roger and Sonya asked me to join them.
Talk to me about coming to eastern Idaho for the first time.
Very, very strange. Pocatello is very small compared to Nairobi.
Did you come to Idaho State University as an educator or student?
Neither. I was a resettled refugee.
How did you spend your days?
Trying to learn English and looking for work. I needed to find a way to be self-sufficient.
What was your first job?
I was a janitor for the Pocatello School District.
You went from being an educator in your home nation to a school janitor in Idaho?
One of the things that was heartbreaking for me was that when I would clean the classroom, I found so many pens and pencils that students had thrown away. I used to pick them up and collect them, and when I got to go back home, I traveled with a suitcase of pens and pencils to distribute to the kids back home.
What was it like when you returned to your home in Africa?
It was 1996, and it was very emotional. My parents were in Rwanda at the time. It was a big reunion, because for many years, my parents didn't even know if I was alive. They had initially received news that all of the students at my university had been murdered. Later, I learned that 250 of my fellow students had been killed.
When you returned to Pocatello, how long did you stay there?
Seven years. I finished learning English, passed my GED exam and began taking classes at Idaho State. One class every semester. I ultimately received a degree in social work.
Meanwhile, you took a job at Idaho State University.
I worked in the Office of Development and Recruitment, which sent me back to Africa to recruit African students. Because of my previous experience, I was able to talk to some of the ministers of learning in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. When I returned to ISU, they hired me to manage the entire program for one year.
But in the meantime, you had your eye set on a master's degree.
It didn't matter where, but it ended up being Columbia University. They had a fantastic School of International Public Affairs.
And then all of a sudden, you're smack in the middle of New York City.
Oh, my goodness. Completely opposite of everything I'd known up until then. And then, two weeks after I arrived, 9/11 happened. We are all vulnerable, but for many here in the U.S., it changed their mindset that they were somehow immune to what happens in other parts of the world.
Post-9/11, there were a good many people in this country who thought it could never truly recover from such a tragedy.
But I didn't believe that. New York showed a great level of resilience.
It's interesting to note that you knew instinctively that we Americans had to heal first before we could get any better. And in a large way, that's what you do every single day here at the Children's Home Society in Boise.
Every single day.
So, let's talk about how you came to the Children's Home.
It wasn't on my radar at all. I had met my wife at Idaho State University and we now have a daughter. I had been travelling so much around the world, but I had missed the experience of my daughter growing up. We finally decided to chose Idaho as our home. My wife Amy's parents are here, so we chose Idaho. But prospects in eastern Idaho aren't as good as Boise, so we came here in 2015.
It's my understanding that you did a lot of volunteer work before taking on this assignment.
I worked a lot with the refugee community, through the nonprofit Global Talent Idaho. And one day, Mayor [Dave] Bieter came to speak and we got talking. He asked me about my story, and passed my name onto Diana Lachiondo, the city's director of community partnerships. Eventually, my name came to the Children's Home Society, which was looking for a new executive director. When I was first asked about it, my response was, "I've never worked in the health care system in the United States." I was told that they were more interested in someone to provide leadership. I recall that we had a nice conversation over coffee and when we were finished I was asked, "You're not leaving anytime soon, are you?" The next day, I was told that the board of the Children's Home Society wanted to meet me. That was two years ago.
And not too long after that cup of coffee...
I became the executive director in April 2016. Here we are.
I want to give you the opportunity to talk about your colleagues here at the counseling center.
In the two years I've been here, I've come to understand the kind of sacrifice that they make every single day. They're my heroes. Think of this: I can't imagine going home every night and trying to sleep after hearing what they've heard from these children.
So today, do you see the world through the eyes of the children, or through the eyes of their caregivers?
Wow. Absolutely both. In my life, I've been given second, third and fourth chances over and over and over, through the different people who were my caregivers, my healers. And the clinicians here, they give those second chances, glimpses of hopes to kids who had absolutely nothing. These children may not have seen any way out, because they have suffered in silence. It's up to us to say, "I care about you. I'm going to help you."
It's stunning that here we sit, in the most prosperous nation on earth, yet so many children are still abused, neglected or don't know where their next meal will come from. I still can't wrap my brain around the idea of an American child going to bed hungry.
We see it in Sudan, in Ethiopia, somewhere else. But for that to happen here? We throw away food every day. No. This is absolutely unacceptable.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to weigh in on the refugee crisis and some of the choices that our current administration is making.
It's very unfortunate. I get so confused. I have received the most generous gift of being accepted in the nation. That first time that I said the Pledge of Allegiance after I became an American citizen, I truly knew I was home. I believe that's a feeling that every refugee ultimately shares.
As a body of one, we are made better by diversity and change.
That's it. That's absolutely correct. Those are the words. Yet, there are some who want to destroy that.
But can I assume that you're still an optimist?
My, my. Yes. Nothing has ever come easy for me. I know that if something doesn't work out today, I can still be positive about tomorrow.