Jacques Gatera is a happy 18-year-old with a winning smile. Give him an opening, and he'll fondly needle you in English, French or Swahili. "He's kind, is Jacques," says Thér√®se Mbuya, his mother. "He's confident and helpful. He respects people." Physically, Gatera resembles Tiger Woods at the same age: small waist, bony shoulders, perfect posture. His golf scores are not yet in Woods's league--Jacques shoots in the 70s on courses near his home in Phoenix--but the recent high school grad has enough game to partner a tour pro in next week's Wal-Mart First Tee Open at Pebble Beach, the tournament that pairs junior golfers with Champions tour players.
It's Gatera's backstory that grabs people's attention. For most of 1999 Jacques and his family were inmates in a concentration camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The year before, they were prisoners in their own home as government troops and rebel militias, inflamed by the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the overthrow in 1997 of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, turned Congo into a charnel house. (Since 1999, an estimated 3.5 million Congolese have died in the conflict.) When Jacques was 10, he stared without comprehension at television images of ethnic Tutsis being tossed alive onto piles of burning tires. "My dad," he says, "was a Tutsi."
Jacques and his brothers--Serge Gashegu, now 20, and Patrick Kisomanga, 16--were 13, 15 and 11, respectively, when they were relocated to Phoenix with their mom and their father, Anaclet Munyurangabo, in February 2000. Sponsored by an area refugee aid organization, the parents received training as hotel housekeepers while the children threw themselves into learning English and adapting to a new culture. They were introduced to golf by Scottsdale businessman Tim Kloenne, who took them to the First Tee par-3 course in south Phoenix, one of 209 nonprofit junior golf facilities operated by the World Golf Foundation. "It was the first course the boys had ever seen," recalls Kloenne. "When they hit their first putts, they'd run after the ball, like in soccer."
All three took to the game, and before long they were playing as many as 10 rounds a day on the Tom Fazio-designed nine-holer. "The First Tee became like a second family for them," says Thér√®se, who works at the Four Seasons Hotel in Scottsdale. "When not at school, you find them at the First Tee playing golf." Jacques quickly distinguished himself as the best player in the family, breaking 80 on championship courses at 15 and captaining the team at Central High in his junior and senior years. He also became the most obsessive watcher of the Golf Channel. "He rules the remote," his mom says with a laugh. "We can't use the TV."
This normal life in some ways echoes the normal life Jacques's family enjoyed in Lubumbashi, a large industrial city in Congo. Anaclet was a railroad electrician, Thér√®se, a schoolteacher. The boys attended Catholic school and played soccer in the city parks. They lived in a two-bedroom house with a family room and nice furnishings.
That all ended with horrifying suddenness on Aug. 2, 1998. "When the conflict began," Jacques remembers, "they announced on the radio to all the Congolese: If your neighbors are Tutsi, kill them. If you don't kill them, we will come and kill you." Having seen the carnage of a similar campaign in Rwanda, the Tutsis panicked when they saw the broadcast, running from home to home seeking sanctuary, dozens of them hiding in tiny houses for weeks on end. "You cannot believe how people suffered," Thér√®se says. "Without water for two months, no food. People without skin, just bones. Couldn't walk or stand. People died in the homes, and three days later they started to smell." In the streets, meanwhile, finger-pointing neighbors directed marauding bands of Hutus and Congolese to suspected hideouts. Jacques's father, the son of Rwandan Tutsis, crawled into the narrow space above the ceiling and stretched out on a beam. He would hide there for three months, his skin sagging on his atrophied limbs. Thér√®se told neighbors that her husband had died in the first wave of terror--a plausible claim--and kept her sons off the streets.
"At the beginning we denied we were Tutsis, to save our skins," says Serge. "We were lucky our mother was Congolese. If not for her, we would have all been killed." The safety provided by her birthright was soon tested, though, when a friend in the government told Thér√®se that he could get sympathetic soldiers to escort her husband to an abandoned Catholic convent that had been turned into a concentration camp. Realizing that he could not survive much longer in the ceiling, Anaclet came down and surrendered to the soldiers. A month later, after numerous visits to the camp, Thér√®se decided her sons would be safer there too. The boys joined their father, and eventually Thér√®se abandoned the house and moved there herself, encouraged by the visits to the camp of United Nations and Red Cross personnel, who promised that efforts were being made to relocate the refugees.
Asked if the camp was better or worse than home confinement, Jacques laughs. "Both. Inside we felt that we would probably not get killed. But you never knew. The soldiers guarding us were telling people that the next destination would be death, and there was no way to escape." There were no beds for the refugees; they slept on floors or on the ground. There was little to eat or drink, no place to bathe, and the inmates owned only the clothes on their backs. Disease swept the cloisters and many died.
Grasping for a word to describe their plight, Thér√®se comes up with the French word epreuve, meaning test. She says, "God can give you a situation where you think, I can't get out. But we told the kids about the Bible. We prayed. I told them, 'This place is where God wants us to be. If he wants to take us, he'll take us.'" Jacques nods. "We didn't give up."
Their story is unusual, as Congo stories go, in that it has a happy ending. After a year and a half at the Lubumbashi camp, Jacques and his family were flown to the African nation of Benin, where they spent five months in a well-supplied refugee camp run by the United Nations and the Red Cross. Then, with surprising quickness, they were cleared for expatriation and loaded onto a jumbo jet--once again, carrying nothing but the clothes they were wearing and a spare shirt or two. ("We didn't even know where Phoenix was," Jacques says.) More than 24 hours later a Phoenix-based refugee aid organization checked them into a Motel 6 on Indian School Road, where they slept deeply and soundly through the first sunrise of their new lives. "Life is normal here," a grateful Thér√®se said last week. "We are safe. We have good friends. We feel as if we are human."
In most respects, the immigrants have thrived. Serge, who speaks five languages, is a student at Glendale Community College. Patrick, a junior at St. Mary's High, plays on the golf and basketball teams and will soon travel to Washington, D.C., to compete for a $10,000 college scholarship at a First Tee event. Anaclet and Thér√®se separated last year, but he works as a maintenance technician for a Phoenix apartment complex and she continues to rack up employee-of-the-month awards at the Four Seasons.
And then there's Jacques, who will start classes at Glendale the week after the First Tee Open. To prepare for the tournament, he has been hitting balls, playing practice rounds and studying videotapes of Tiger Woods's 2000 U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach. "I rewind the tape and look at the shots Tiger hit there, trying to put myself in his shoes." With a twinkle in his eye, he adds, "I tell people these will be my practice rounds for the 2010 U.S. Open."
Gatera's flawless manners betray his foreign upbringing, but in most respects he is a typical American kid. He speaks the idiom. ("I schooled you guys!") He listens to Coldplay. He wolfs down Jack in the Box hamburgers. His short-term goal, after a couple of years at Glendale, is to play golf at Kansas State. Long term, he would like to design courses for a living.
Congo, meanwhile, still boils. In December 2004, Rwandan troops crossed the border amid reports of villages being burned and thousands fleeing the combat zone. Four months later a Reuters poll of human rights experts called the war the world's top "forgotten crisis ... dwarfing the scale of the Asian tsunami but attracting scant media interest."
"We feel sorry for the family and friends we left behind," Jacques says. "They're still there, hiding."
For a moment the smile fades, but then Jacques is quoting from Caddyshack and extolling the virtues of Tom Watson, his favorite senior player. ("I love his personality on the course," he says. "When Watson hits a bad shot, he's calm and ready to hit the next one.") Gatera, it's safe to say, will be a hit on the Monterey Peninsula.
"He's stoked," Serge said last week. "Jacques can't wait to get to Pebble Beach."
"It's true," Jacques said, laughing again. "I want to go and stay there forever!"
His smile said: It's a wonderful world.