Rock Island wrestler Ignace Hakizimana has come a long way in the past five years, in every sense of that phrase.
He was born in Rwanda, lived in a house made of mud, hunted and grew his own food, and never played organized sports.
When war came to his homeland, he and his family fled to the United States. He arrived unable to speak English.
Today, Hakizimana is a senior wrestler at Rock Island and is ranked No. 5 in Class 2A at 120 pounds by Illinoismatmen.com. He wants to become the first member of his family to graduate high school and attend college. It is a transformation that is a case-study in hard work, both on the mat and off.
"It's really the American dream come true," St. Ambrose director of international education Ryan Dye said.
Life in Rwanda
Hakizimana lived in a house in Rwanda so fragile that it would come apart when it rained, sometimes forcing the family to find somewhere else to stay. The building was separated into a sleeping area and a main living area.
The family hunted animals while raising goats and rabbits, and grew its own food such as corn. Dinner was prepared over a fire pit that Hakizimana likened to a campfire.
"We'll go 10 minutes to go find water," he said. "We'd carry the water on our heads."
School was different, too. Class began at 8 a.m. and would run until noon. Students were given an hour to walk home for lunch, then returned at 1 p.m. to stay until the day was finished at 4 p.m.
Living with Hakizimana is his father, Diomede Ntanemera; mother, Prucilla Bankundiye; brothers, Shadrack Niyonkuru (age 12), Jean Marie Nsengiyumva (10) and Mechack Bitangimana (1); and sister, Rachella Iradukunda (8).
Hakizimana is not the family name. In Rwanda, parents give two names to their children. There are no middle names and the last name is not a family surname that passes between generations.
"Usually the last name is like a Christian name," he said. "Like Nsengiyumva means when you praise the Lord, he hears you. Hakizimana means that God saves everything."
Hakizimana's grandparents still live in Burundi.
Coming to America
Once war came to Rwanda, the family made the decision to abandon its homeland for safety. They walked for several days from Rwanda to Kenya, riding a bus for only part of a journey that covered several hundred miles.
From there, they flew to New York City and eventually to Chicago before finding their way to Rock Island.
"I thought we were going to a place where I could eat anything, go to school and don't do anything," Hakizimana said of his expectations of America.
A student group from St. Ambrose, led by Dye, worked with the World Relief Refugee Agency to help the family find a place to live and get Hakizimana's father a job. Hakizimana enrolled in the Rock Island school district as a seventh grader.
"We were worried he would struggle to fit in," Dye said of Hakizimana's adjustment to life in the U.S. "We worked hard to make sure he got involved with good people."
Hakizimana and his family only spoke the native language of Rwanda, Kinyarwanda, when they arrived in the U.S. Dye said he and his students would place cards on objects such as a table to help reinforce the family's English.
Although Hakizimana now speaks English well, he struggles with vocabulary. He lists English as his most difficult subject, but also as his favorite. His English teacher, Michelle Greenwood, said Hakizimana comes early, stays late and even comes in during lunch to get all the help he needs.
"A lot of it is being more descriptive with him than I would be with anybody else and more repetitive," Greenwood said. "For the most part, he does all the hard work. He is very dedicated to his education. He focuses very hard to make sure he has every little piece of it correct. He doesn't just turn in some random assignment, ‘I'm done with it here you go.' He makes sure everything is done exactly before he turns it in."
That dedication to hard work not only serves him well in the classroom. He also brings that same dedication to the mat.
Rock Island wrestling coach Joel Stockwell describes the seventh-grade version of his state-qualifying wrestler as raw. On top of teaching him the basics of wrestling, Stockwell also was charged with teaching his new pupil structure. On more than one occasion, Stockwell had to call and remind Hakizimana to come to practice or go pick him up himself. All of that helped endear Stockwell to his wrestler.
"Coach Stockwell is a really nice coach. I love him a lot," Hakizimana said. "He's how I got to the state tournament because of him. I listened to what he told me. He wants me to be a champion and go to college."
Getting to where the two could understand each other took some doing. Stockwell, whose sister is deaf, said he caught himself falling back to sign language to help get his point across sometimes.
At practice, Hakizimana constantly asks questions trying to get better. He wrestled on the junior varsity squad his freshman and sophomore years before finally cracking the varsity lineup last winter.
By the end of the season, Hakizimana was good enough to place fourth in the state at 119 pounds.
"The progress he's made is an anomaly, really," Stockwell said. "He's always hungry. ‘What can I do? What can I do?' He's always asking that question. We use him as an example to the little kids and the high school kids."
Hakizimana is light-hearted and friendly away from the mat, so much so that it is not unusual to see him walk up to opposing wrestlers and strike up a conversation, Stockwell said.
Hakizimana can lose his focus on the mat at times, but when he's locked in, he's every bit the No. 5 ranked 120-pounder in the state.
"When it's the state-medalist Ignace, he's the go-getter. He's the one pushing the action, non-stop aggressive," Stockwell said. "When he's the not-Ignace that we don't like to see, he looks lazy, he looks tired. He's not. He's one of the hardest working kids in the room. He can run for days."
The experience at state last year left an impression on Hakizimana. One of his goals is not only to return to state, but to participate in the walk of champions, reserved for the top two wrestlers at each weight.
His description of his experience there mirrors his journey from Rwanda to Rock Island.
"It was amazing," Hakizimana said excitedly, "It's really big."
His transformation is still ongoing, but those around him like where he's headed.
"He's a polite, kind, wonderful young man," Dye said. "We're thrilled how he's turned out."