(Photo by author, 2022)

Dear Mucyo Jean

Annie Windholz

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Trigger Warning: Death and suicide

Hey friend, just wanted to detail in one place the different ways I want to celebrate you, and tell you thank you for being in my life. Apologies for the details I might get wrong. I miss you and I wish you were here to correct me.

You and your family were resettled in Kansas City a week or so after I started my new job at the refugee resettlement agency here. I would go with my Nigerian-American boss to the homes of refugee families, and he taught me a lot, being a refugee himself. The first refugee family’s home I visited on my own without him was yours, your family’s.

I will never feel good about the fact that we never made that family dinner happen. Maybe someday we still will, but now without you. You continued to invite me over since the day I met you, and well into 8 years later you were still as warm and inviting, though I’m sure the world had changed you like it does us all.

My first visit to your house was to introduce you all to your “mentor” family, an American family who had volunteered to help you all learn some of the ropes in your first year in America. It was a planned quick visit that ended up being a full family dinner, with me, the vegetarian, eating chicken off the bone (something I had never done before, but you all insisted and had made it for me, so I tried). It was really good, even for a vegetarian. There were also beans, noodles, and more. And lots of smiling faces as we ate, even though the language barrier made things harder.

Before we ate you and and your mother went around and traditionally washed everyone’s hands with soap, a bowl of water and a towel. Then we had a feast. I’m thinking this was maybe a month into your time in the US, and your family was spreading the love with the little money they were given.

(Photo by author, 2015)

I visited multiple times after that for various reasons, but if I had someone I wanted to introduce to the refugee community, your family was always so welcoming. You were the unofficial but usually sole interpreter for your family, at 17. You had learned English while at a refugee camp in Kenya, where you said you made lots of friends of all different backgrounds and languages. In addition to adding English to Kinyarwanda and I believe Swahili and French, you also learned Arabic and other languages and then began learning Spanish when you moved to the U.S.

You told me the last time I saw you that you were originally told you were being resettled in Maine, not Missouri. Back at the refugee camp in Kenya they taught you all about Maine- the culture and the weather and the people- and then the day before you left you found out it had been changed to Kansas City, Missouri (a place you had no context for after all that studying and preparing winter coats).

It turned out you still needed the winter coats though, because Missouri is not necessarily forgiving in the winter. You arrived in the fall, so it was just starting to get cold.

You were the oldest of 6 kids at 17 when you came to the US. Back in Rwanda at five years old you were separated from your mother and had raised yourself and your two year old brother for years before reconnecting with your mother at a Kenyan refugee camp later in life, right before you were resettled in the U.S. She had remarried and had more kids which were your new siblings, and you all came to the U.S. together as a new family. I think you were 24 when you died this winter.

The week before you had died you had watched the new Black Panther movie, which begins with a funeral for the Black Panther in tribute to the actor who played him who had died. You lived your life attempting to be the Black Panther, and you succeeded if you ask anyone who knew you.

Before I visited your family home that first time, I met you my first week of work at the resettlement agency because there was a “Refugee Kids” screening at the library, with a panel of refugee kids from the area. You were on the panel, brave and ready to speak to thousands of people upon your first steps in America. I was amazed by you, everyone was, and everyone knew you were going to do great things. And you did.

After I stopped working at the resettlement agency and after you became an adult we became friends on facebook. We stayed loosely in touch with messages, and your ability to be present on social media was exactly like your ability to be ever present in person as well. I’m not sure you ever slept, where did you find all the time?

You were so interested in my life and other peoples’ lives, without needing people to have the same belief system as you. A very rare trait in my experience, and something that I aspire to be more like you in.

I moved to Syracuse, and then moved back to Kansas City from Syracuse and then started work at the library here. On my first day on the job, I shouted when you walked in as the library security guard! We reconnected there in person and you would continually buy two lunches when we worked together to share, even though I always told you that you didn’t need to do that. Carp and I came over for dinner at your place as well and you fixed us dinner, delicious beans, tomato onion and rice.

You were probably the only person who I could disagree respectfully with about the police and military. When I met you at 17, you told me you wanted to be a soldier because you wanted to protect people. Though we disagreed on the concepts of the criminal justice system and war, I understood your desire to try and make the world a better place, especially after all you had been through with civil war, refugee camps, living alone with your brother and the PTSD it had caused you. You told me over drinks in a bar soon after we started working at the library together that you had pretty bad PTSD and struggled with suicidal thoughts sometimes. I never checked in about that after you mentioned that to me years ago, and I regret that.

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You did do ROTC and tried out the soldier life, and realized it wasn’t for you. Then you became a security guard with the intention of being a cop, while also driving nights as a valet, and finally began the police academy around 2020 when we had many interesting conversations on a hike at the Parkville Nature Sanctuary (one of your favorite places). You told me that in the police training they taught you to shoot to kill, that if you as a policeman ever decided it was necessary to shoot someone you were supposed to shoot them in the chest so that they couldn’t question the police force or come after you later. You said that you didn’t think shooting was as necessary as so many cops thought it was, that people were not as scary as the police academy made them out to be. You believed in the power of communication and asking a person what was going on.

We talked about racism within the police force, and you said it was real and you saw it. But you’d rather become a policeman and add to the pool, instead of just letting racism men run the club.

We loosened contact during the pandemic, but reconnected this past summer while I was getting my class E license downtown, and you were the security guard at the Missouri State Highway office! You laughed when I came out and told you I had barely passed the test on the second try, and you introduced me to your coworker, and elderly man who you treated like a college buddy (like you treated everyone). I told you about the Saturday night potlucks we had started doing with friends during COVID, and invited you. You loved the idea, and were so excited to come. Unfortunately I got COVID the next week so we had to cancel our potluck, and I know you were disappointed because you had been planning what to bring to dinner that night.

The last time I saw you was at a potluck at my house a month or so later, and a few months before you died. You texted me before you came over to check and see if I was still vegetarian. I said yes, and you assured me you would cook the chicken separate from the soup (you loved to feed people, and always invited us over for dinner). You cooked the chicken separate out of care for me, and then added it to the soup after you cooked it separate. It was so sweet of you to put in the effort to try to make something vegetarian even if you didn’t understand vegetarianism.

It was a quiet potluck that night, with just a few people including you. At first when I looked back on this I was very sad about it — I wish we could have shown you a packed house that night. But also, if it had been a packed house I wouldn’t have been able to talk with you so much. You shared so much that night, and I learned about you on a whole new level. I was so excited to continue to talk to you about all that we had discussed.

You talked about your work at the refugee resettlement agency in the past few years, and how you quit because the director told you to “take it down a few notches” because you wanted to buy refugee families clean new plates and silverware when they arrived, inside of using old plastic things. You knew what new families wanted and deserved, and you were pissed at being told by white Americans that the organization couldn’t afford to meet new refugees with dignity (the bread AND the roses).

You talked about how you had finally become a cop in the past year, and you had recently quit. This surprised me because I knew that you had been working toward this goal for years. What had happened? I asked.

You told me that you had accomplished what you set out for when you joined the police force, which was to get revenge.

“Tell me more, Mucyo! What are you talking about?”

You settled in to tell a story, an intimate story that I had never heard from you before. You told me, and the other people in the room, that during your first year in the U.S. when you were 17 you were driving and had a cop pull you over. The white male cop came up to your window with a gun, and held it at your head and asked you why you stole the car and where your license was. You said you didn’t steal the car, and showed your license. The cop continued to hold the gun to your head, and made you get out of the car. You stayed with a gun to your head for 7 minutes while the cop interrogated you. You thought you were going to die. You had made it through civil war and refugee camps and raising yourself and your brother from childhood, and now you were going to die in the “land of the free” over something you probably didn’t even understand about American society yet — racism. You had no way to get back at that cop or hold him accountable in any way.

You made it out of that situation, but you never forgot. Over the 7 years of knowing you, while you stood up for the profession of the police force and all, I had no idea that you had experienced this kind of trauma from the police, and experienced it so immediately after arriving in the U.S.

But once you got on the police force this past year, you said you got everyone to like you (which they couldn’t resist) and then you told them about what had happened to you when you were 17, and you pointed to the cop who had done it to you, who was still in the police force. They fired his ass pretty immediately after learning about this from you, a new policeman who everyone liked. And then you quit the police force because, as you said, you had gotten revenge and that’s all you wanted.

You also talked about being a bouncer at a bar recently, and how you had noticed the sexism that women working had to deal with on a nightly basis. I was so excited to continue these kinds of conversations with you. It was so cool to see your ever evolving views on life and politics and I was really looking forward to having you as a friend to talk to for the rest of my life, with more and more complex topics each time.

— —

Your funeral was at the Bahai Center, a place you also always invited me to join you at. I finally went, but I wish it was under different circumstances. I have never cried throughout an entire funeral before, but yours was the first one. Your funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve emotionally done as an adult in recent memory. People talked about the core themes of your life, how you were such a rabid community builder and “once you met Mucyo you never didn’t know Mucyo”. This was certainly true in my story of you and me as well. You were always connecting people and places and down for anything.

Suicide is a disease, PTSD is a disease. There’s nothing we probably could have done, but everyone at your funeral said you gave so much to everyone around you, and we wish we would have done more for you. After you died I had lots of “what’s the point of life” thoughts that only come when something so sad like that happens.

What’s the point when the best among us who work so hard to survive, and do everything right by society’s standards, hit those rough waters.

I love you, friend. You were like a little brother to me, and also like an older brother who had lived a few lifetimes. I’m going to miss bumping into you in the world so much. I hope your next spin around the universe gives you an easier time, you deserve it.

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