(Editor’s note: Alex learned on June 20th, after this story was published online, that his request for asylum was effectively denied by US Citizenship and Immigration Services.)
The moment I met him, I knew Alex Gitungano was special. I can’t really explain how I knew. I just knew. It was a Monday evening in December 2014. We sat in the lobby of Shriners Hospitals for Children — Boston. Upstairs receiving burn treatment was a little boy. A boy named Leo.
Prior to meeting Alex, then 26, I’d been told the basics of his story. I knew he and Leo had come from Burundi, a small, struggling East African country. I knew Alex had volunteered to be the caretaker for Leo Ikoribitangaza, a boy then 4 years old who had suffered severe burns two years earlier in a fire at home. Their improbable journey to Shriners became the basis for a Globe Magazine series I wrote in the spring of 2015.
What I didn’t know then — what neither I nor Alex could have guessed — was that more than four years later, I’d be sitting on a folding chair in the Track & Tennis Center at Boston University, watching Alex receive his master’s degree in public health. Or that by his side, in a matching red gown, would be Leo, a thriving, fully Americanized third-grader who has profoundly transcended the deprivations of his early life.
Since their first uncertain days in Boston, Alex and Leo have known joy, disappointment, breathtaking kindness — and a bit more snow and cold than they ever bargained for. The army of people helping them has only grown. They’ve benefitted from a little good luck and, Alex would say, a whole lot of God’s grace.
READ THE ORIGINAL STORY: A SEVERELY BURNED BOY FINDS HOPE IN BOSTON
The hallmark throughout has been Alex’s selfless devotion to 9-year-old Leo, of whom Alex now has legal guardianship. (They use each other’s first names at home, though Leo has taken to calling Alex “my dad” when talking to other people.) “He’s doing something that’s so extraordinary that you just really want to help him,” says Wayne LaMorte, a professor of epidemiology at BU and one of Alex’s first grad school instructors.
I’ve stayed in touch with Alex and Leo. I took them to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. I played guitar with Alex last fall at his 30th birthday party, where my own third-grader romped around with Leo. I made inquiries when their housing seemed at risk and when Alex was first searching for funding to attend BU’s School of Public Health. At some point, I stopped worrying about being a dispassionate journalist and became one of the many people rooting for them. Because, really, how can you not?
And yet their livelihood hangs in the balance. Alex needs to find a good job to support them; they’ve been living in a donated apartment in Framingham, but the owners have plans to sell. Leo has a green card, allowing him to remain in the United States. Alex’s application for asylum — filed a few years back, when political violence in Burundi began threatening his family — is still pending.
Alex can legally work in the meantime, but it’s difficult to imagine what would happen to Leo if Alex’s asylum request doesn’t go through. Returning to his family in rural Burundi is plainly a nonstarter. Besides, as he grows, Leo will continue to need restorative procedures on his right eye, face, and head, probably including an operation this summer to expand his scalp, to cover a painfully thin skin graft on his skull.
For the moment, Alex and Leo have found stability and love in Framingham, where the Charlotte A. Dunning Elementary School community has embraced Leo. He plays on a travel soccer team. He formed a tight bond with a group of boys in his class. He devours graphic novels and recently made a slide show on spiders, according to his third-grade teacher, Lisa McRae. “He walks in at 9 every morning and throws his arms around me and says, ‘Good morning, Ms. McRae!’” she says.
McRae and school staff members have made of point of normalizing Leo’s disfigurement. When Leo had an eye procedure at Shriners in February, McRae visited him in the hospital, bearing handwritten notes from the class. Afterward, when Leo was reluctant to go to school in the mask he had to wear, McRae made a slide show for the entire school with photos of LeBron James, wrestlers, and superheroes — all in masks. Later that day, a boy in the fourth grade gave Leo a letter that said, “Leo, you’re my superhero.”
Even while taking care of Leo, Alex nursed his long-held dream of attending graduate school. The opportunity came in the fall of 2016. A friend in his church community managed to raise $12,000 so Alex could take two classes as a guest student at the School of Public Health. If he did well, according to Alex’s deal with BU, the school would grant him full-time status.
Alex began to fret after he bombed an early test. The American university setting felt so foreign, much different than the Francophone system he’d known in Africa. But he stuck with it, despite the two-hour commute to school each way.
He learned to seek help from professors. He, too, connected with classmates — so much so that at the end of the term, 44 of them signed a letter to the director of admissions recommending that Alex be admitted to the full master’s program. “I must admit, I’ve never seen anything else like it,” says Sandro Galea, the school’s dean. Not only was Alex admitted, but the following March he was awarded scholarships covering full tuition and fees for the entirety of his master’s program.
Looking ahead, Alex says he’d like to manage a health program or maybe start his own NGO. For now, with Leo to take care of, he’s looking for health care jobs close to home. “I don’t know where this will take me,” Alex says, “but I want to live by giving.”
When Alex’s name was read over the loudspeaker at the School of Public Health convocation in May, he and Leo bounded onto the stage side by side. They strode across the platform to a beaming Galea, who greeted Alex with a hug and handed him a folder for his diploma. Then Leo’s cap fell to the ground. Alex bent down, picked it up, and rested it gently on Leo’s head. They walked offstage together.