The March 8 celebrations at the Vatican around the theme — Peace building efforts by women — were truly amazing. The calm and composed voice of young Mirreille Twayigira, a survivor of Rwandan genocide, keeps haunting me. Rather than “a story of tragedy”, she prefers to name it “a story of hope”.
Her childhood memories are of a large happy family living on a farmland, where she had a cow to herself to drink milk from. She was barely two when the dead body of her father was brought in wrapped in a white cloth and with this the peace and tranquility of her village collapsed. The next victim was her own little sister, who could not avail of medical aid due to turmoil and succumbed.
Soon they were forced to flee from their village and become refugees. As the violence spread from district to district, they fled through the forests to neighbouring Congo, to Angola and Zambia, back and forth, begging for food and shelter. She saw her entire clan disintegrating. She was alone with her grandparents. Just before they reached a refugee camp in Angola, her grandmother too passed away. By then her little heart was so hardened she had no tears left. With a composed voice she continues, “I too would have gone.” A frail, listless frame, bloated stomach, sunken eyes, scanty hair, she recalls how the soldiers would come and take away young girls. After a while some would return, pregnant or afflicted with AIDS. “They didn’t look at me as I was too tiny and sickly, so I survived,” she adds.
Finally they reached a refugee camp run by the Jesuit Refugee Service. There was food to eat, a grandfather who loved her. She was enrolled in a good school. “What more does one need?” she asks. She was happy. She studied hard and made her grandfather proud.
Then they moved again to Lusaka, because her grandfather wanted to provide his granddaughter better education opportunities. From Lusaka again they moved to Malawi, where she was enrolled in a higher secondary school. By then her grandfather passed away. This loss was too much to bear and she collapsed. After a pause and she reflects philosophically, life had to move on.
The moment of triumph came when she was one among the six state toppers. At an event to felicitate the young achievers, the Chinese government declared scholarships to study medicine in China. “But how could I go? I had no citizenship, no nationality, I was just a refugee in a foreign land”. But help came from unexpected quarters. The Malawian government took up her cause and she awarded citizenship and a Malawian passport. In 2010, she left to study medicine in China. This expanded her horizons as she became part of an international student community.
To an audience listening with rapt attention, she tells, “It was challenging”. This is an understatement. But she could not give up; she was here on a mission, a vocation, to return to serve her community. Finally, in 2016, she was awarded the degree and returned to Malawi for her internship.
She ends her narrative with some probing questions, “Are you ready to open your homes for refugee children like me? They need food, shelter and medicines. But more than anything else, they need higher education, which alone can lift them out of their degrading status of being a refugee and bring dignity to them.”
A story of hope, not only for Rwandan refugees, but refugees everywhere.
This was followed by a conversation with Shadan and Nagham, the Syrian refugees now living in Belgium. They had set out from the shores of Turkey in a rubber boat via the deadly Balkan route. When conflict erupted in Syria in 2009 they had started teaching displaced young children life skills in relief camps, but never imagined that they themselves would be in need of these skills one day. When they stepped into the boat, they were acutely aware that they did not know how to swim. Nagham was at the bottom, with several layers of people piled up above her. But Shadan was restless, constantly straining her eyes from the upper deck to spot land. They were the despised “boat people”, desperate refugees landing on the shores of Europe in the hope of a new lease of life. When Shadan finally spotted a tiny sliver of land far out in the horizon, she knew they were the lucky ones.
When people ask her about her refugee status, her response, “we are not just refugees, we are ‘normal’ people who have been turned into refugees”. They talk about Syria with nostalgia. “Syria is not just the last five years; it is a beautiful country”.
There were more stories of hope, courage and peace building in a world asunder by conflict. There was Maggie, a Tutsi from Burundi, who at 16 witnessed the Hutus slaying her entire family. The next day, when the Tutsi clan marched to avenge the killings, Maggie ran across and stood guard outside the Hutu homestead as a human shield. From that moment onwards her mission is to spread the message of peace among orphaned children.
Then there was young Stephanie Lorenzo, a Chinese-Australian, who after reading the story of survivor of sex trade was so moved that she set up a non-profit, Project Futures, to raise funds to support safe homes in Cambodia. Last year, her organisation raised $4.5 million through various fundraising events.
To these brave narratives, I added my own story of surviving domestic violence, and setting up an NGO for providing access to justice to victims of sexual and domestic violence, which almost paled into insignificance. But as Chantal Gotz, the driving force behind Voices of Faith, a small group of dedicated Catholic women, said in her concluding speech, “every voice counts”.