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Genocide Survivor delivers message of unity to Brockport

by Katherine Fernandez - Copy Editor
Tue, Apr 23rd 2019 10:00 pm



Despite the poignant, inspirational nature of the experiences she details in her memoir, Sandra Uwiringiyimana is just like other college students: she struggled with her identity, had a hard time embracing the things that make her unique and went through depression in her college years. As the final event in the Human Rights Event Series, Uwiringiyimana delivered a powerful lecture in the McCue Auditorium in the Liberal Arts Building on Wednesday, April 17, recounting some of the most difficult moments in her life and sharing the good that came from them. 

Uwiringiyimana’s native tribe, the Banyamulenge, have been discriminated against for years, treated as foreigners in the only home they have ever known. The conflict that followed her and her family their entire lives and would often be forced to flee but they would always return to their homes. She never thought the day would come when she would have to relocate, leaving Africa to live in America. After surviving the Gatumba massacre in Burundi, Africa at the age of 10, Uwiringiyimana went through an expedited resettlement process that brought her and her family to Rochester, New York, where she was tasked with a whole new set of problems she didn’t foresee. Suddenly, she found herself being racialized in a way she had never been before and the preconceived notions she had about life in America proved to be far from the truth.

“...America has similar problems to what I grew up with, but it’s just a little different because it’s America and we don’t brand it like that,” Uwiringiyimana said. “We have so many homeless people here in America but you don’t hear us saying that America is a poor country. We don’t call it the third world. It’s not because we lack poverty in this country, it’s all about the way we think about it and brand it in our head.” 

She went on to explain that despite all of the things that make us different, it is important to reflect on our humanity and realize that we’re really all the same, “we’re just walking different paths.” Looking past the differences that segregate us is integral to the acceptance and open-mindedness that unites us. 

Something that most of the audience members could also relate to was Uwiringiyimana’s difficulty expressing the mental health problems that plagued her during her time in college.

“Suddenly I’m failing in all my classes, having nightmares,” Uwiringiyimana said. “I’m going through things that I’ve never gone through and this is the first time I’ve ever left my family. In my culture there are no words to talk about mental health, so I was going through things that I couldn’t even comprehend and couldn’t explain to my parents.” 

The concept of post traumatic stress disorder was hard for her to come to terms with, seeing her struggles as a sign of weakness in comparison to those who went through the same things as she did. She now understands that this couldn’t be any further from the truth and her inner strength came from having the courage to face her emotional turmoil.

“Just because you feel like other people have been through worse things than you does not mean the pain that you’re feeling is small or that it’s not important or that you shouldn’t take time to take care of you,” Uwiringiyimana said. “I learned that the hard way, don’t do it. Always take care of yourself, always take care of your soul and everything else will align.”

Uwiringiyimana rose beyond the trauma she experienced and became a voice for those who were not able to escape the conflict she faced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Condition of Hope is a nonprofit organization that her family started in Rwanda. She returned to her native country after 14 years and eventually became one of the co-founders of the Jimbere Fund, a non-profit organization developed to “revitalize communities and lift people out of poverty” by aiding women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, launching their own businesses. Her interest in giving back to her community came from values instilled in her from a young age by her mother, who never turned members of the community away no matter what.

“At times we called her Mama Plastic Bag because somebody would just come by and ask for food and she would never say no, she would just say ‘Bring me that plastic bag’ so she would fill it with food, even if she knows it’s not enough for us left,” her older sister Princesse Nabintu-Kabaya said. 

Despite the continuously raging conflict in Congo, Uwiringiyimana wasn’t surprised to see that the hospitable nature of Congolese families has not changed, with families she came across this past summer never allowed her to leave their homes without at least eating first. Through her continued work with 167 women across all tribal families in Congo, she shared that her goal is to help 5,000 women create businesses by the year 2025.

After a post-lecture book signing Uwiringiyimana wrote heartfelt, personalized notes to everyone. The evening came to a close and attendees walked away from the experience more conscious of not only the world around them and the experiences of others, but also with the heightened awareness of the importance to believe in themselves and be right within. To learn more about the work Uwiringiyimana is doing, you can go to jimberefund.org.



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