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Therese Safranek met her daughter’s neighbor, also named Claire, while she walked each day. The woman and her children pause for a photo with Safranek in front of their home where the mother sews in the sunlight.

Senior gives much, receives much in Rwanda

Many retirees spend winters in Texas or Arizona. But when Dr. Therese Safranek retired last year, she went to Rwanda.

“Terri hates winter. All year she dreads it, even in summer,” said her husband, Jim Brosnihan, a dentist. He added she was burned out by 30 years treating trauma patients in the emergency room.

One of their four children, Claire Brosnihan, and their 10-year-old adopted grandson, François D’Assisse Yway Ezu, live in Rwanda, where winter temperatures hover between 60 and 70 degrees. Claire, who works for One Acre Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps farmers in Rwanda to increase yields, invited her mom to make her winter getaway their new home in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. 

Safranek and her husband, members of St. Cecilia Cathedral Parish in Omaha, had visited Claire when she worked in rural Rwanda, but this would be different. Kigali’s population is over 1 million. D’Assisse had become family. The two-month retreat would allow her to experience the country her daughter called home. 

She left Omaha Jan. 4 and hoped to volunteer as a physician. However, the lengthy licensing for hospital volunteers forced a change of plans. Instead of sitting idly, she decided to start her application for next year and explore other ways to help. Opportunities were bountiful. 

Rwanda is a developing country, and while much progress has been achieved since the civil war and genocide 25 years ago, there are limited resources for what seem to be unlimited needs, said Safranek. She walked several miles each day, including to daily Mass. She saw the street schools, the hardworking motorbike drivers and extreme poverty. 

“We have such wealth here in the U.S. Even our poorest have a way to get what they need,” she said, referring to welfare and private assistance programs. She didn’t see that for everyone in Rwanda. She said to herself, “I may as well do something.” 

She accompanied another doctor caring for the street school children. Illiteracy is common and education is not entirely free, she discovered. “If I tell the school I’m coming back next year, they could put me to work every day.” 

She met many people, including Theogene Iyamuremye, a 19-year-old who cares for his five younger siblings. His dad died from HIV/AIDS. His mother suffers from the disease.

Before work he attended daily Mass, where Safranek learned from him that his sister had kwashiorkor, a disease caused by protein deficiency, and was dying. “They were all starving,” she said. She bought enough eggs, milk and other high-protein foods for the family, knowing his sister would get better.

“My American mom … after Mass, she give many advice. She tell me to work hard and keep your spirit … and to pray,” said Theogene via WhatsApp. 

Safranek connected Theogene to One Acre Fund and listened to his dream of opening a small store offering only basic items. It would be the first store in his village and give the residents an opportunity to buy necessities without long, sometimes impossible, travel. Safranek said she believes Theogene has the potential, with help, to change the lives of his family and everyone in his village.

“I’m so glad my mom is as open to new things and opportunities as she is; that she said yes to coming not knowing what she was fully getting into,” said Claire through WhatsApp. 

“My mom is like superwoman and my role model,” said Claire, who manages a team of 1,000 at One Acre Fund. “I saw how devoted she was as an emergency room doctor, how committed she was to her patients and family … four of us kids in five years. I don’t think I fully understood the depth of that until I was a mother myself.”

Claire’s adoption of D’Assisse began when she learned the orphan, living in the convent she called home while in the Peace Corps, would eventually be sent away as he aged out. He had bilateral Achilles tendon shortening, able only to walk on his toes. He would be shunned, making earning a living later in life difficult. Surgery last summer in Omaha corrected the condition and has given him new opportunities.

“My parents and my Catholic school education taught me ‘to whom much has been given, much is expected,’” said Claire, adding that her mother “lives it and is someone I really look up to.” 

Safranek’s eyes fill with tears when Theogene or Claire talk about her. After the calls, she explained that as one of eight children (one brother is Father William Safranek, pastor of St. Bridget-St. Rose Parish in Omaha) “we always had enough to eat and received very good educations. We have given that to our kids, so I feel I can give time, talent, energy to others.”

“I don’t want this to sound like showboating,” she said. “Everybody has their crosses. I don’t care who you are. We are all on a journey to some end. … I’m just doing what I think needs to be done.”

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