As told to Susan McClelland
I met Shyrna Gilbert, a Canadian schoolteacher, at a teaching conference in Rwanda in 1988 and again at another teaching conference in August 1990. By then I was 25 and had advanced from being a schoolteacher in a poor, small school to holding a senior administrative position with one of the teachers’ associations in Rwanda. Shyrna suggested that it was increasingly unsafe for me to remain in Rwanda. Shyrna explained that she was Jewish and if someone hadn’t helped her family leave Germany in 1933, she might not be alive today. She said that if there was anything she could to do to help me, to let her know.
Within a week of the Rwandan war starting in October 1990, more than 10,000 Tutsis, like me, were imprisoned. I couldn’t tell Shyrna what was going on as our mail was being read by the police. Instead I sent a card that said: “Your brother in Calgary, whom I met in Kigali, asked me to write. He heard the situation isn’t good in Calgary and he’d like to join you in Toronto. He doesn’t know how.”
The letter was sent, but despite my being cryptic, the authorities searched my apartment twice.
Shyrna wrote a letter inviting me to a made-up conference in Toronto. A day before I left, I told my father my plans. We all knew death was coming to anyone who remained in Rwanda. He said, “Even if they kill all of us here,
at least I know there is a survivor in the family.”
It took 11 months for the Canadian government to recognize me as a refugee, as they didn’t believe the situation in Rwanda was bad. (I was one of the first Rwandans to come directly to Canada and insufficient investigation had taken place in Canada at that point.) Then I saw a report by Human Rights Watch which listed the names of individuals killed in northern Rwanda. The names were those of my cousins, and this supported my claim that I had cause to fear returning.
The worst thing for me in Canada was going on welfare. I had a job in Rwanda and I was supporting other people. Welfare wanted me to visit 10 companies a day and give a report. I had to walk up to strange cashiers in malls and ask them in my broken English if there were any job openings. When they said no, they had to sign my welfare paper to confirm I’d at least asked. It was so demeaning that after five months, I lied and told welfare I had found a job. From then on, I painted and cleaned houses until I was accepted at York University to study sociology and economics and then teacher’s college at the University of Ottawa.
There were seven boys in my family: I was the eldest. My parents kept trying for many years to have a girl until at long last my sister Mutoni arrived. My mother died from asthma complications shortly after the birth. But then Mutoni died, too, from intestinal troubles before the war started. Only two of my brothers and a handful of cousins, aunties and uncles survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
When I talk to my own daughter Mutoni, which means precious in Kinyarwanda, about them, I focus on the positive traits of each family member and what family life was like in Rwanda. Growing up, we’d all eat a big dinner and then sit out on the porch under the moon. We’d sing and tell stories. We were very happy and close. I want to give Mutoni this sense of outdoors that my family gave me — to feel the closeness of being with another person without the distractions of a television or toys.
Today, I teach French and I visit various schools to talk about genocide, war and peace. My goal is to build in the students a sense of compassion. I try to convey that war is not about bad people, but about bad choices. I want them to understand that evildoers are human beings too. I get them to think of people they love and to imagine if they lost that person, how they would feel. If you can take young people out of the context of the war or death being far away, to reflect their own life experiences, it’s then that they understand and perhaps grow up with a sense of social justice.
“I want Canadians to know that Rwanda is not the genocide. The genocide is something that happened. But Rwanda also has a strong culture and it’s physically beautiful, too. A paradise. When I am talking to children, I want them to have this image of Africa that is more than they see on the news.” - Léo Kabalisa