Peter Mutabazi was 10 years old and desperate when he fled his abusive father and his home in the southwestern Uganda town of Kabale.
“Life was just miserable,” he recalled. “I went to the bus station, and I asked the lady, ‘Hey, which bus goes the farthest?’ And I ended up in Kampala.”
He lived on the capital city’s streets for roughly four years, scavenging for food and scrambling for a safe place to sleep – until a kind stranger put him on the path from Ugandan street child to American foster dad.
The boy had been hanging out at a market, offering to help shoppers carry their goods, earn a little money, and perhaps sneak a banana to eat.
“When I saw this man, I think I wanted to steal food from him,” Mutabazi recalled on a recent Saturday in December, sitting in the well-stocked kitchen of his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the man surprised the boy. “When I tried to get food from him, he’s like, ‘Hey, what's your name?’ You know, no one had ever asked my name.”
The man gave him respect – and food. And after repeated visits to the market, where he sought out young Peter, the man offered him the chance to go to school.
“For the very first time, someone saw the best in me,” said Mutabazi, now 47. “… He saw a kid who had potential and he was willing to say, ‘You know what, I want to invest in you. I want to do something for you.’ And that's what changed my life.”
The man enrolled the boy in a Kampala boarding school, where he thrived. Later, Mutabazi worked and received scholarships to study business administration at Makerere University in the capital, then went on to Oak Hill College, a theological academy in London, and The Master’s University, a Christian institution in southern California.
Entrée to fatherhood
Eventually, work in real estate led Mutabazi to Oklahoma City, in the south-central U.S. state of Oklahoma. He volunteered to mentor teenagers in foster care, when a social worker encouraged him to become even more involved. He signed up that day to train as a foster parent.
That was in 2017. Since then, Mutabazi has been striving to bring out the best in youngsters who, like him, have experienced neglect, abuse, rejection or other difficulties. He has fostered 20 children so far.
The first child placed with Mutabazi was white, as are all four in his current brood.
“I was shocked, like, wait a minute, the kid doesn't look like me,” Mutabazi said. He quickly learned that abuse and neglect don’t discriminate. And he decided, “Hey, I'm here to advocate for every child.”
Mutabazi has since cared for youngsters of various racial and ethnic backgrounds: African American, Native American, Hispanic and Caucasian, he said. Of nearly 424,000 children in U.S. foster care in the most recent federal government snapshot, 44% were white, 23% were Black or African American and 21% were Hispanic.
A distinctive dad
Observers say Mutabazi is uncommon among U.S. foster parents: a single male, Black and foreign-born.
“For a single guy to foster is extremely rare,” said Ken Maxwell, executive director of Seven Homes Inc., a faith-based agency in North Carolina that has placed six children with Mutabazi. "It’s rare to see African Americans adopting Caucasian kids,” Maxwell added.
Yet that was the case with Anthony. He came to Mutabazi as an 11-year-old whose adoptive family had given up their parental rights after nine years. Mutabazi agreed to take in the boy for a weekend visit.
“Once I had the story, I think it went back to my time as a 10-, 11-year-old,” said Mutabazi, remembering being “helpless, unwanted, not knowing what your future is. And there was a kid in front of me who just reminded me of myself.”
“My dad's story really helped me to connect with him better,” said Anthony, now 15. “… I realized that me and him, we both got through a lot.”
He was adopted in November 2017 in a courtroom in Charlotte, where Mutabazi had moved to work as a regional manager for World Vision, a nonprofit Christian antipoverty organization.
“As much as I'm helping them through their trauma, they are helping me through my own trauma. … They teach me so much about myself as well,” Mutabazi said.
Mutabazi added that he also draws support from almost daily calls and text messaging with the man who sought him out at the Ugandan market long ago. Mutabazi said his informal foster dad prefers not to be named publicly.
The enterprising spirit that helped Mutabazi survive his tough childhood has taken on new dimensions. He has scaled back his work with World Vision, continuing as a speaker and child advocate for the organization, to allow more time for fatherhood (he receives a government stipend for each child’s care). He flips houses, upgrading and reselling each property. As #FosterDadFlipper, he has become an influencer on social media, with more than 132,000 followers on Instagram. He has a YouTube channel, Now I Am Known, showcasing some of his family’s experiences and antics. He markets a plush toy “support dog” resembling the family’s golden doodle, Simba, with a collar bearing affirmative phrases such as “You matter.”
Mutabazi doesn’t stop at flipping houses: He also wants to flip a series of negative stereotypes, instead emphasizing that most Black men are responsible and committed fathers, and that single men can provide a safe and supportive home for foster children.
Also, “as an immigrant in the United States,” he said, “I think I would love people to know that we are here and we are changing lives.”
When he’s out with his children, Mutabazi said he sometimes encounters bias and suspicion over differences in skin color.
At a big-box store recently, he and his children lined up for free tastes of a food product, he said. The woman passing out the samples told the children she needed a parent’s permission. “And they just said, ‘But he's right here,’” Mutabazi recounted. “… There's a false narrative that I'm not fit to be a dad to white kids or I don't have the skills and the principles to raise white kids. …. Yes, they don't look like me, but they are my family.”
Seven Homes’ Maxwell envisions a positive ripple effect from Mutabazi’s fostering.
“What’s really going to be remarkable is all those kids that he’s touched. They're going to go out and change other people's lives,” Maxwell said. “And so, the impact of one is going to be spread out over the years. It's going to be amazing.”
VOA Africa Division’s Betty Ayoub reported from Charlotte, North Carolina, with Carol Guensburg reporting from Washington, D.C.