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From immigrant to Airman

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“Growing up in Rwanda had its ups and downs,” said the 22-year-old. “Sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat. The entire community would be without food, so it didn’t bother us as much. We didn’t dwell on it. We just lived.”

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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. —  Since his youth in an East-Central African nation with a turbulent history of genocide, one Airman dreamed of becoming a leader.

Only two years after enlisting, Senior Airman Karl Mutangana, 96th Logistics Readiness Squadron, deployed for his new country as an Airman in the United States Air Force.

“I’m grateful. Being in the United States Air Force is an enlightening experience,” said the five-level journeyman. “It’s rewarding to see what I do supports the test aircraft and a larger mission.”

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Mutangana, the eldest of five siblings was born in Kigali, Rwanda.

“Growing up in Rwanda had its ups and downs,” said the 22-year-old. “Sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat. The entire community would be without food, so it didn’t bother us as much. We didn’t dwell on it. We just lived.”

Mutangana was 11-years-old when his mother moved to America under refugee status. He remained in Rwanda with his grandmother.

Although the 1994 Rwandan genocide was over when Mutangana was born, he grew up in a conflicted society with lingering ideological differences. The prejudice he witnessed from those tribal conflicts ignited his passion for leadership, he said.

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Determined to keep those differences from affecting another generation, he became the president of the Never Again Club in his high school.

The club advocated harmony and dialog between the Hutu and Tutsis, the Rwandan ethnic groups affected by the genocide.

“Bringing Hutus and Tutsis students together to talk through real issues broke the bondage. We became friends. We realized we had a better future,” said the multi-lingual Airman who speaks four African languages. “Through this experience, I realized I had a passion for leadership. There was something better in my future too.”

Eventually, after three immigration application denials, Mutangana was granted a permanent residence card and joined his mother and his America-born siblings in Connecticut in 2015.

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“The are are no words to express how I felt when I was reunited with my family,” he said. “It was the happiest moment of life to finally hug my mum and meet my siblings.”

Long before Mutangana arrived, he searched for leadership opportunities. He found himself drawn to the Air Force’s culture of integrity and leadership.

“I felt the Air Force would be a good platform to develop my leadership skills and further my education. It would be living my dream,” he said. “I always knew I wouldn’t stay in Rwanda forever. I wanted to open up and seek new opportunities.”

Despite some uncertainty about the requirements for joining the Air Force, Mutangana placed his hopes and dreams in what his mother always told him, ‘anything you think of, dream of, you can achieve it.’

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“When the recruiter told me I was eligible. I knew it was the beginning of my success story,” said Mutangana.  “I was glad for the opportunity to join the world’s greatest Air Force.”

Mutangana first donned his ‘Blues’ for basic training graduation. That momentous day was when he also became an American citizen.

“At the same time, I was sworn-in as a U.S citizen,” said Mutangana. “It was memorable. I became an American after 10 months in the country. It was a miracle.”

Mutangana’s leadership qualities blossomed quickly as an Airman. He was recently promoted to senior airman six months early. His job as a liaison between suppliers ensures F-35 aircraft parts are prioritized according to mission needs.

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“Mutangana was handpicked to help lead the new F-35 MICAP, (mission capable section) here and he’s become a key player,” said Staff Sgt. Stephany Birkos, Mutangana’s supervisor. “He makes me proud. His motivation and passion are what our Air Force needs.”

Now deployed, Mutangana is in a leadership role as an escort for non-military connected base workers.

“I had a chance to speak to a few. Every time I hear their stories, it humbles me and makes me grateful for the opportunities I have,” said Mutangana.

Story by Ilka Cole, 96th Test Wing Public Affairs

PHOTO (TOP):  Senior Airman Karl Mutangana, 96th Logistics Readiness Squadron, is a supply liaison for F-35 Lightning II aircraft parts. He is an African-immigrant who dreamed of becoming an Airman. He is currently deployed serving his new country. Photo was taken prior to promotion. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

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