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Published April 11, 2012, 11:30 PM

No longer on the run: Former refugee delights in choices of her new life

FARGO - When Laetitia Mizero smiles, it’s not just her mouth that turns upward. Her whole face celebrates – nose crinkling, skin glistening, eyes shining.

FARGO - When Laetitia Mizero smiles, it’s not just her mouth that turns upward. Her whole face celebrates – nose crinkling, skin glistening, eyes shining.

It’s no wonder; her very name means joy. Even more exactly, sublime joy.

Laetitia’s parents, Pierre-Claver and Euphrasie, must have known somehow that their first-born daughter of six children was destined to be a light for others, and that she would need a hope-filled name to carry her through all that life would bring.

Despite a traumatic past marked with periods of fleeing from dangerous situations, the former refugee, one of the first Burundians to come to this area in the late 1990s, has found a resting place in Fargo. And her difficult past has turned into a present laden with possibility.

Those who have known Laetitia only in her new life say she spreads kindness and compassion wherever she goes.

“I look to her as a friend, a mother figure and a mentor,” says Jaci Woinarowicz, who also watches Laetitia’s two children when she’s traveling. “She’ll find the littlest things to bless people throughout every single day.”

Carla Odegaard has worked with Laetitia for nearly a decade now through the local Head Start program, and agrees Laetitia brings out the best in everyone.

“When she’s in a meeting or any kind of gathering, she makes everyone in the room feel comfortable. She also has a good sense of humor, and no matter who’s talking or what idea has been put on the table, she always can find what’s going right with that,” Carla says.

In her job serving as liaison for connecting New Americans with resources, Carla says, Laetitia is particularly adept and brings a necessary awareness to the true needs as well as a “worldly intelligence” that informs others.

“She has a way of making all people feel comfortable and proud of who they are and where they come from,” Carla says. “And she listens; she’s a great listener. She’s also very intelligent. She knows five languages, but she has a way of not placing her values or her ideas on other people.”

In Laetitia’s own words, learning about other cultures is enjoyable. “I love people and the only way you can understand people is if you’re interested in their background,” she says.

Hard-won contentment

It is only through considering the unrest of yesterday that one can best appreciate and understand Laetitia and her extraordinary ways. Indeed, just as easily as smiles come to her face, so do tears when the moment calls for them.

There were years when it was easiest to just forget about the past; to block out her memory of the two times she ran from her home country, one eye looking nervously over her shoulder.

Nevertheless, that past holds clues to her quest to become whole. And in recent years Laetitia has found herself revisiting those defining years.

“I like to say we didn’t choose Fargo,” Laetitia says. “I applied to come to United States, and it was more serendipity, or destiny, that brought us here, but we are so glad it happened that way.”

“Us” included Laetitia and her 18-month-old son, Yann, as well as four of her five siblings. Her older brother, Jean Claude, had relocated to Canada, and her husband had stayed behind with intentions of joining them later.

Even her siblings’ names – Nadine, Aline, Claudette and Olivier – offer a historical hint, telling of the post-World War II colonization of the Republic of Burundi by the French-speaking Belgians; the major force behind the civil unrest that has been cyclical there ever since, she says.

The trouble as it affected her personally stems from her parents’ heritage. Of Burundi’s two main tribes, at peace before the years of instability, her mother is one, Tutsi, and her father, the other, Hutu. “My parents wanted us to define ourselves as Burundians first, like members of the big human family,” she says.

But not everyone saw it this way. When, in the early 1970s, an attempt by the Hutu tribe to overthrow the Tutsi tribe failed, all educated Hutus were targeted to be killed. Among them was Laetitia’s father, an artist and politician who would someday run for president of the small African country.

“My dad was a very strong advocate of education, and my mom is not very educated formally but is very street smart; her social skills are unbelievable, and her humanity,” Laetitia says. “So I grew up in a well-rounded family of academics with also the social and emotional pieces.”

Her father, now deceased, used to tell his children that no matter where they ended up in life, “whether in China or on the moon,” a fulfilling life was within their grasp. “He would say that it’s not the geography of where you are, it’s not even necessarily the people or the environment, but you can make your home wherever you end up,” she recalls. “And if you are grounded – if you have faith and are a hard-working person, and if you are kind – you will be happy.”

Laetitia has held fast to those words many times while searching for a safe place to rest.

The first flight

Her father escaped death in those earlier years only because he’d been away in France doing graduate work. But his family was, in essence, held hostage, Laetitia says. Their only chance of seeing him again was to flee to neighboring Rwanda in the middle of the night and, hopefully, obtain passports to France.

Laetitia was only 5 at the time, her memories more akin to brush strokes than defined lines.

What she does remember is being roused in the nighttime, hushed voices to keep the cousins sleeping, and saying goodbye to and being blessed by her grandparents but not knowing why. “It’s a culture that doesn’t share much with the children but you can read the emotions, and I remember hearing grown-ups whispering, trying to shelter us as much as they could.”

Over the next few days, her mother left Laetitia, Jean Claude, 7, and their sister, Nadine, a toddler, at a hotel to do what was necessary to obtain the necessary documents.

Considering the scenario now, from the perspective of a parent and a woman who knows the culture, Laetitia finds troubling questions forming in her mind.

“My mother was extremely beautiful at that age, and to be in yours 20s and trying to find favors in a male-dominated world, sometimes money is not what they really need, so it’s very hard for me to imagine what she did or didn’t do,” Laetitia says, hinting at the ethical dilemmas her mother may have faced.

She feels equally for her father, who, as a natural protector of his family, had no control over what was happening. “In a way you’d feel like a failure. Maybe you’re not killed, but you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing for your family,” she says.One day, the four of them ventured out together to meet up with a friend of her father’s hoping to help. The simple jaunt turned traumatic, however, when her brother was struck by a car and pinned underneath.

She and her little sister watched from the curb, crying as their mother fainted at the sight of her bleeding son.

Eventually, she revived and began pleading with the driver and others nearby to help Jean Claude. “My brother is screaming and my mother is having this conversation and there is a crowd; that’s a picture that will never leave me,” Laetitia says.

The family friend, who happened to be in the crowd near where the accident took place, brought the sisters to safety while her mom and brother went to the hospital. He took care of them until they were able to leave.

It was just days later that the family, including a healing Jean Claude in bandages, set off for Normandy, France, where they would live in peace for the next five years.

Laetitia still cannot explain the mysterious presence of people responsible for their survival. The one most prominent in helping them to France happened to be the driver of the car that had hit her brother – a pregnant woman and obviously the wife of someone important, Laetitia says. “To this day, I don’t know who she was.”

She’s come to her own conclusions about the incident.

“When I tell this story people think it’s not real because it doesn’t make any sense, but stories like this make me who I am today,” she says.

Looking for stability

Eventually, the family returned to a quieted Burundi, and Laetitia spent the rest of her growing-up years there, reading books, attending parochial boarding school, and experiencing a normal childhood.

But eventually, machine guns and machetes began appearing. The factions regained momentum, and in some cases, vulnerable children were manipulated and coaxed into turning on family members. The education of Laetitia’s younger siblings was constantly disrupted.

Her parents decided to ensure their children’s futures they needed to send them someplace a solid education was possible.

Laetitia, at this point a mother, thought about her young son Yann’s future. Concerned, she volunteered to leave with her siblings to help them settle into a temporary life in Burkina Faso, West Africa. “If I didn’t have Yann I don’t know if I would have risked it, because the idea of starting over again was scarier than staying with what I knew, even if it was not safe,” she says.

But even West Africa held little long-term promise for the family. If they were lucky, they might secure jobs, Laetitia says, but not a life of hope. With unrest in Burundi only increasing, she began researching places in which to settle permanently.

“I wanted to break the cycles of fleeing, and I felt like it would be better to go and try to make a living some place, once for all, especially for the children,” she says. “I wanted them to grow up in a place where they could dream.”

And so it was that she, her four younger siblings and son found themselves in Fargo in 1998. Her husband joined them in 1999, and in 2001, her second child, Nicole, was born.

Three months later, she fled for the last time – with her children to another neighborhood. Some friends still blame Laetitia for the dissolution of her marriage.

“We thought we would work through the problems we had before, and we did try in many ways,” she says. “When he came here, the anticipation was that it was going from OK to great. But we realized we’d grown apart.”

The decision to part ways was hard for Laetitia, who’d grown up in a country where divorce is not well-regarded.

“In Burundi, you are more respected for being in a bad marriage than divorced, and most of the time you are blamed for the breakup,” she says. “Even if there was physical abuse, you get more praises for hanging on than leaving to spare your life. They’ve normalized women being mistreated. You don’t get anybody’s sympathy.”

While they didn’t initially encourage the divorce, her parents supported Laetitia because they trusted her heart. “This speaks volumes of them,” she says. “Most (Burundian) parents would have said you are bringing shame to the family.”

Starting over again

Though not easy, this period became a time for great transformation. “Emotionally I was a wreck. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but eventually I knew that I didn’t have a choice,” she says.

Her children, now 16 and 10, are grounded and well-balanced, she says, and she and their father have a very civil relationship that developed hard work and healthy communication.

Laetitia made other big changes, too, including becoming physically active and losing 100 pounds in the process, obtaining her master’s degree, and embracing faith in a different Christian denomination than where she began.

The most profound change, perhaps, has been the realization that she controls her life’s direction; something Laetitia didn’t feel as a woman in Burundi.

“Even as an educated woman, coming to this country, I didn’t know I had so many choices. It’s become a joke at my house. I tell the kids, when they’re giving me a hard time, they are so lucky I didn’t know having children was a choice,” she says, smiling.

Melding the best of both her former and current cultures brings a welcomed challenge to Laetitia, including holding fast to the African concept of ubuntu.

“Very roughly, it means humanity,” she says, explaining that without a shared approach to life, we can become isolated. “I’m not an island, I’m part of a community, and I enjoy that. It comes with responsibilities, but knowing I’m still an individual is also very empowering to me.”

Nevertheless, her friends insist Laetitia is far from ordinary, regardless of her origins.

Jaci says when she first met her she was attracted to her kindness and their commonalities and often forgets she’s from someplace else.

And as someone who has watched Laetitia work through some of the struggles of her new life here, Carla expresses admiration for the woman who has pushed through so much to not just survive but thrive.

“People in our community know and trust her. She’s this very strong, quiet leader. And she’s a very good role model who provides a lot of hope for people,” Carla says. “I appreciate her so much. She’s just one of those people who touches many lives.”