A lot of things make Peter Habyarimana unique. He’s a single foster dad, for example, and he’s traveled to 101 countries and every major city in the U.S. But what trumps them all is his unbelievable upbringing.
Habyarimana was born in Uganda in a level of poverty he said is hard to even explain.
“You wake up in the morning and you never know if there’s going to be a meal for you that day,” he said. “No one in your life has ever said you would amount to anything because it’s a life of survival.”
He went on to explain that because half of all the babies born in his village didn’t live to their second birthday, his mother had a difficult time even getting attached to him as an infant.
Habyarimana said by the time he was 4 he realized the odds were stacked against him even more than he thought. He began to fear that if he didn’t die of starvation, his abusive Dad might actually kill him. Around age 10, he decided he couldn’t take it anymore and he fled 500 miles to the nearest city and became a street kid.
On the street, he stole to stay alive. One day, a man approached him and offered him food. That man approached him with food over and over again for a year.
“Then one day he came and asked me if I wanted to go to school,” he said. “I thought, ‘My own father would not feed me, why would you come here and offer for me to go to school?’ But of course, he kept asking. And for the first time, someone saw me as a human being. I was the garbage of all, but he said there was value and potential in me.”
The man was the Ugandan leader of an international ministry for children in poverty. He enrolled Habyarimana in boarding school, where he performed so well he got a scholarship to study in England before becoming employed by the very ministry that helped save his life as a boy.
Habyarimana has worked tirelessly helping children across the globe through the organization and working to show donors the life-saving work they’re helping to fund. On a trip a few years ago to the Dominican Republic, he met a donor from Oklahoma City who planted an idea in his head that if he ever tired of traveling the world, Oklahoma would be a good place to land.
So after 12 years of traveling the world, Habyarimana now lives in Oklahoma City where he flips houses for a living. But with a heart dedicated to helping others, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he found another way to serve. A world away from the life he once knew, Habyarimana found himself living alone in a three-bedroom home.
“I’d just walk by those two empty bedrooms and feel like there was something I should be doing for other people,” he said. “Can I really call it (my home) a blessing if I’m not using it to help other people?”
So he signed up to be a foster parent.
“His compassion level is through the roof,” said Jessica Ward, Habyarimana’s caseworker at Angels Foster Family Network. “He shows compassion in every aspect of the definition. He uses his history and how he grew up to change the lives of kids.”
And although his difficult past helps fuel his compassion in a lot of ways, Habyarimana said it sometimes makes it difficult to fit into American culture.
“When you come from poverty, it’s very hard to live in the United States,” he said. “There’s a lot of guilt. You have to deal with people with a lot of money and attitude. You can have so much and never feel you have enough. That’s really tough for me to see.”
Still, he’s adjusted by remembering to just approach people from their own cultural perspective, just like people have done for him over the years.
“I just try to understand where they’re coming from first,” he said, “and I try to love them in the context of their culture.”
Perspectives From a Single Foster Parent
You’re a single foster dad. What is it like to take on this responsibility without a partner?
Single people usually have extra money and time, so why not use that for someone else? Just because you don’t have a family doesn’t mean you can’t be part of a family. In Africa, we say “it takes a village to raise a child.” Americans need to start thinking that way. It takes a community, single men and women included, to make families successful.
Are there advantages to being a single foster dad?
The majority of people in roles helping kids are women. The boys are looking for those male role models, though. They’re looking for a guy to just sit with them, hang out with them. The oldest foster kid I’ve had was 11 and the youngest was 4. They’ve all walked in and accepted me right away because they’re really in need of male leadership.
How does your background influence the way you foster parent?
I’ve learned not to come at things from a judgemental attitude. Most people with kids in the foster system have been mistreated in some way and told they are useless as parents. But someone once pursued me and told me I was worth something and it changed my life.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since becoming a foster parent?
I thought I was compassionate. Now, I know what compassion is. I thought I was kind. But you really learn who you are through the kids. Now, anything I wish my Dad could have done for me, I can give to someone else.
As a whole, I think foster kids are misunderstood. These are some of the sweetest, smartest kids I’ve ever met. There’s a stigma here but people need to remember kids do not choose where they are born. You’d never choose to be born in an abusive home or to a drug addict.
And parents don’t usually just wake up and say, ‘hey, I’d like to have a lot of kids and be on drugs.’ Many things happen in life and sometimes kids happen to be in the midst of it all. A foster parent has the opportunity to foster the whole family and really help them be successful. We shouldn’t give up on people so easily and we shouldn’t judge a situation until we’ve lived in it ourselves.
Will you continue to foster?
As long as I have room and they will allow me, I’ll have them. I will always be a foster dad until I run out of space.
Generously sponsored by Kimray, this is part one of a series that will provide stories of OKC foster families. Find more information about the foster care system and how to become a foster parent at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.