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02/23/2013 at 05:40 PM ET

rachel jewelry 600x450 From Homeless in the Congo to the Oscars Red Carpet: The Story You’ve Got to Read Before TomorrowCourtesy Rachel Mwanza

One of the best stories from this year’s Oscars ceremony isn’t taking place on screen, but rather on the red carpet.

Rachel Mwanza, the 16-year-old star of the Best Foreign Language Film nominee War Witch, will be joining her fellow nominees in L.A. after obtaining a visa from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo just days before the Oscars.

The young actress was “discovered” by the War Witch team from a documentary called Kinshasa Kids, which portrayed the life of Mwanza and other children living on the streets in the Congo.

Since being cast in the film, in which she plays a child kidnapped and enslaved to a life of guerilla warfare, her life has changed dramatically — from having a home and education paid for to winning a best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival.

And since her flight arrived late Friday night, she needed a red carpet-worthy dress quickly, which is where Rent the Runway stepped in.

The designer rental service rushed Mwanza several dresses to wear to the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday, from which she chose Kate Spade New York’s “Tiebreaker” style, adding Chamak by Priya Kakkar bangles and a Judith Leiber clutch.

“I’m so excited to be in Los Angeles. I’ve never seen the ocean before!” Mwanza tells PEOPLE through a translator. “I’m tired from my long trip, but way too excited to rest!”

She shared exclusive shots with PEOPLE (above) of her trying-on process, including shots of her caretaker “Mama” helping her zip into her final dress, and the many jewels she was sent to choose from.

And it didn’t take much to get Mwanza ready for her high-profile debut: “I’m going to work it on the red carpet,” she says. “I’ve been practicing my poses!”

The one disappointment from her trip so far? No sightings of a certain superstar. “Beyoncé is my favorite in the whole world. Why is she not here?!” Mwanza jokes.

Below, see a shot of Mwanza and her War Witch producers Marie-Claude Poulin and Pierre Even at the Independent Spirit Awards, and be sure to watch her film, which will be On Demand beginning Tuesday and in select theaters March 1.

And keep an eye out for her at the Oscars Sunday night, where she’ll be wearing a top-secret dress made for her by an African designer. Can’t wait to see her poses!

rachel mwanza 600x450 From Homeless in the Congo to the Oscars Red Carpet: The Story You’ve Got to Read Before TomorrowCourtesy Rachel Mwanza

–Alex Apatoff

PHOTOS: SEE MORE OSCARS STYLE HERE!

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