SCHENECTADY — Yannick Kabuguza still lives with the internal scars of surviving a genocide, but his most visible wound is on the mend thanks to Schenectady surgeons.
Kabugaza, 28, hailing from Kigali, Rwanda, underwent surgery Monday at Ellis Medicine's McClellan Street Health Center to repair a severe wound around his ear that he sustained from a machete during the Rwandan Genocide.
Sporting a head bandage and a smile, Kabugaza said that the surgery marked a turning point in his life, and that he could only have arrived here by the grace of god.
His path to Schenectady started when he met Bill Lavin, a former firefighter who later moved to building playgrounds for youth suffering from tragedies, such as at Sandy Hook, and, eventually, in Rwanda.
"I believe it in my soul that these doctors were put in our path," Lavin said of connecting Kabugaza to U.S. medicine.
Kabugaza, who speaks four languages, said in French that his injury gave him "headaches all of the time," and generally caused pain around his ear. Any small touch or unintended contact with his ear would cause him great distress.
The surgery to repair the wound was complicated, according to Dr. Patricia Fox, because the scar tissue and other damage to the ear had moved over time since the wound was sustained at age four.
"There was no one sewing it up... Basically someone put a bandage on it and said, what happens happens. It happened to ... part of the ear adherent to the skull, with the other half of his ear not connected to the bottom half of his ear," Fox said. "He was extremely fortunate. Had the machete hit him two inches lower, he wouldn't be here.
Despite suffering such trauma during the conflict, Kabugaza stressed that he forgives those who wounded him, as well as those who murdered his family.
"My story is about forgiveness," Kabugaza said in English before switching to French to go into more detail. "Forgiving is a process. Yes, there's a negative side that comes up with my positive side, but it's not the job of the world to forgive someone. It's up to us individually."
Kabugaza also stressed "reconciliation" and "good will among adversaries" as keys to moving past deep cultural fissures, something he said can apply anywhere, including the United States.
The journey to get Kabugaza to Schenectady was part of a fundraising effort led by Lavin and others, including many young volunteers who solicited donations.
"People say young people tend to be problematic these days, but I've met so many great high schoolers willing to help Yannick," Lavin said. "He's a great ambassador to the world."
Next, Kabugaza wants to obtain his college degree in film studies. He has already worked on several documentaries and TV series, and plans to advance further in the industry upon graduation.
Dr. Jim Creighton, who has worked in the East Africa region for years, employed Kabugaza on a TV series when he noticed his curiosity and work ethic.
"Yannick came to us without any real skills, but he was one of the hardest workers — actually, the hardest worker," Creighton said. "He was the hardest-working guy, and eventually I promoted him to assistant director because he had the energy and enthusiasm to put so many things together."
Eventually, Kabugaza hopes to recover enough to play his favorite sport, basketball, without fear of further damaging his ear. A devout Steph Curry fan, he said his love for the sport has been hampered by the deterioration of his ear wound.
The more important thing, he said, was that even when terrible pain is involved, forgiveness should always be pursued.
"I hope everyone can forgive," he said. "That's my message."