Ryan Oosthuysen’s family farmed large tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa for six generations.
So in 2004, when he left Zimbabwe for a gap year in England, he had no doubt he’d be back someday.
Instead, his family was forced from their land, uncompensated. It was a fate shared by thousands of white farmers, who were forced to flee Zimbabwe, often as impoverished refugees.
“My family was given three hours to leave the farm,” he says. “Everything vanished in an instant.”
Oosthuysen, now a fourth-year medical student on his way to University of Florida for his residency in anesthesia, looks back on those years with a keen eye to the historical injustices not only to his family but also to the workers who relied on their 22,000-acre farm to make a living. Many of the seized farms are no longer in production.
“My grandparents kept in touch with some of the workers afterward,” he says. “A lot of them died from malnutrition and HIV. Those farms supported hundreds of people.”
Even before the ouster, the Oosthuysens faced problems. Land grabs started years before. The family farm had been seized previously, but a court ordered it returned to them. Hyperinflation was decimating the economy.
Oosthuysen knew he needed to show the U.S embassy that he had $120,000 – enough to cover his undergraduate educational costs – in order to get a U.S Visa to study in the U.S. But the unstable Zimbabwe currency made that impossible.
“All our resources were up for grabs at a second’s notice. The currency was hyper-inflating. We couldn’t acquire foreign currency except on the black market. And foreign currency accounts were illegal.”
Then, unexpectedly, an American he didn’t know stepped in to help. The man had met Oosthuysen’s relatives on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe. When he heard about the family’s plight, he offered to be Oosthuysen’s sponsor.
Berry College in Georgia accepted Oosthuysen. But during his second year, he nearly had to drop out when his exiled family moved in with relatives in North Carolina. The family was destitute. Oosthuysen found himself thinking hard about their stability and his own future. Success seemed unlikely.
Once again, others stepped in to help.
“The university created a scholarship to keep me there,” says Oosthuysen, 27, who was able to apply for political asylum in the United States as a persecuted minority. “I wouldn’t have finished college without it.”
Another break came his way after he befriended a local physician.
“He asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I said, ‘I have no idea.’ He asked me if I would be interested in medicine. I didn’t know, so he said, ‘Think about it.’”
That physician arranged for Oosthuysen to meet some surgeon friends, and he ended up working for them for more than three years.
“It makes sense that I should have enjoyed the OR. It’s one of the few places where you put aside all the chaos on the outside, leave it at the door and focus on one patient. I always liked that aspect. On the outside, there’s so much disarray and conflict, but inside you work with a team to really make a difference.”
He chose anesthesiology as his specialty partly because of the flexibility it offers compared to other types of medicine.
“Currently it’s not uncommon for an anesthesiologist to take six to eight weeks of vacation a year,” he says. “That gives me more of a chance to do mission work.”
His Christian faith “was somewhat central to surviving this ordeal. When everything is taken away from you, your faith becomes very important. It is the one thing that remains constant.
“I feel in our impatient culture Christians can get disenchanted because we pray over concerns and then expect immediate results … We have to always remember to wait and listen for God. I think one of the most reassuring aspects of our faith is being able to look back and see God’s grace and timing in providing for our needs, and certainly how he has provided for my own. ”
Would he return to Africa for his mission work after everything that happened to him and his family?
“Africa is suffering from a brain drain, and I’m part of it. I think that those of us who left need to contribute in the future. You’ve got to remember the issue we had is with the ruling elite, not the general population.
“I can’t think of anywhere where the need is more overwhelming.”