With a grin, though not quite a hop and a skip, Issa Noheli of Austin popped on a life-lifting surprise.
After a Friday appointment, Noheli rode a Capital Metro van back home, newly able to take one step with his sturdy left leg followed by a jaunty fresh step with a prosthetic right leg made of aluminum and carbon fiber laminate.
Noheli, 62, said he’d kept secret from his eight children and granddaughter his plans to pick up the prosthetic because he wanted his return to their East Riverside Drive apartment to be special. “It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on two legs,” Noheli said. “I have some kids who’ve never seen it. I’ll put on my shoes and walk around with them.”
At the Hanger Clinic, the prosthetic, plus Noheli’s new coffee-brown size 9½ orthopedic right shoe, weighed in at 8.8 pounds. “It’s like I’m a baby learning to walk,” Noheli said to his translator, Désiré Nizigiyimanagive, who later marveled: “It’s my victory, too.” Nizigiyimanagive had tried to help Noheli line up a prosthetic for several years.
Noheli lost his leg after a 1997 attack on the Mudende refugee camp in Rwanda — where Noheli landed after escaping ethnic Hutu forces who burned his farm in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His leg, raked by machine-gun fire, was later amputated above the knee.
By then, Noheli had rejoined his wife, Colette Mukagatare, who was with their three children in another camp. The couple had five more children through almost 17 arduous years in camps before gaining admission to the U.S. in 2013.
Noheli and his family were featured in the 2016 Statesman Season for Caring program, which highlighted the needs of 12 families and helped hundreds of others through local nonprofit agencies. Noheli’s family was nominated for the program by Interfaith Action of Central Texas.
The 2016 Season for Caring program added up to its best year ever, raising $840,760.28 in donations of cash, goods and services. Since 1999, Season for Caring has raised more than $10.5 million to help the community.
Interfaith Action of Central Texas received $53,743.88 from the program to help Noheli’s family and the other families it serves. The agency used $8,359 for the prosthetic leg, and Hanger Clinic donated its services to lower the cost.
An Austin physical therapist volunteered to coach Noheli through the exercises he’ll need to grow accustomed to the prosthetic.
Other funds went to helping the family, which since December has grown to 11 after an adult son returned from San Marcos. Season for Caring funds have helped pay rent and utilities on their three-bedroom apartment, purchase groceries and pay down the travel costs of moving to the U.S. Lubna Zeidan, the group’s director of refugee programs, said some of the donated funds helped other refugees pay bills and about $25,000 remains on hand to continue to help more families.
Readers also donated items to the family, including a washer, a dryer, a laptop computer, lamps, toys, bicycles for the children from Waste Connections employees, soccer balls and shoes, plus beds from Factory Mattress and bunk beds built by Interfaith Action volunteers.
Noheli also appreciated a donated electric scooter, he said, though he tumbled on it when a pickup hit him in his apartment parking lot and drove away recently. On the other hand, Noheli said, he has ridden the scooter north over Lady Bird Lake to visit a friend on East 12th Street.
A family car and a bigger home remain on the family’s wish list, though, Zeidan said, the family has applied to live in low-income housing.
One more development: A daughter, Mwiza Kayitesi, 21, has been engaged to be married.
At the clinic, Simone Talma Flowers, the Interfaith Action of Central Texas executive director, urged Noheli not to attempt too much, too fast on the prosthetic.
As Noheli wrapped up a practice walk using the clinic’s 14-foot-long parallel bars, Flowers asked: “How do you feel?”
In English, unusually, Noheli said: “Good.”
Find out more about Season for Caring and read past stories, statesman.com/seasonforcaring.