FARGO - Daniel Trust, the youngest of eight children, was 5 years old when he witnessed his mother's murder.
It was 1994 during the height of the Rwandan Civil War genocide killings. Soon after, his father and two sisters were executed. Extremists then stole his family's belongings and burned down his childhood home.
"It happened to me, but it happened to thousands of Rwandans," he said. "I believe I survived for a reason."
Left an orphan with no belongings, he was taken in by family friends, who physically abused him. He was taunted at school and became convinced he was stupid. That all changed when he moved to America.
Trust, a motivational speaker, told his story Friday, Sept. 21, to a theater filled with students at Fargo South High School, 1840 15th Ave. S.
His presentation kicked off the school's annual "Journey to America" writing project, where English-learning students strengthen their ability to write in English and teach others about various backgrounds and cultures. Students draft their own stories, with technical writing support from community volunteers and local colleges. The stories are published and students read their work at North Dakota State University, Concordia College and other venues.
The program is led by Leah Juelke, South High's English learners language arts instructor who was named North Dakota's 2018 Teacher of the Year.
Trust applauded Juelke's work during his presentation and praised America's education system. Although it is difficult to move to America as a child who doesn't speak English, he urged students to celebrate the resources available to them.
"Many children around the world don't have access to a good education or a theater like this," Trust said. "This is one of the best countries to live in. Never mind the politics and fighting on social media. This is a country where, if you have a dream, work hard and seek help, you can succeed."
In 2005, when Trust was 15, he found his sister, Evelyn, who was living in Bridgeport, Conn., and fulfilled his dream of moving to America. He spoke no English and received low grades during his first year of school in his new country. But with the help of his teachers, he was able to learn the language, improve his grades, graduate and go on to college.
"Don't feel sorry for yourself if things are tough," Trust said. "It's sad sometimes, but eventually you have to get upright. Choose not to feel sorry for yourself. Love yourself and validate yourself."
Mentorship and supporting teachers is now the basis of the Daniel Trust Foundation, a nonprofit that supports students from low-income communities and honors teachers who make a difference. Trust is also an advocate for refugee and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.
His visit was funded by the Eleanor Laing Law grant.