Refugee author tells students, ‘It is the story of your community’

Many resonate with her experiences

Sandra Uwiringiyimana signs a copy of her book

Congolese refugee and author Sandra Uwiringiyimana wrote her story of facing genocide because of all the others that are similar.

“There are thousands of Sandras spread across this country who probably don’t know that you care to hear their story, that you care to hear where they’ve been,” she told Godwin Heights High School students during a recent presentation and book-signing event at the school.

Students not only discuss book, but promote it

Students in English teacher Rebecca English’s multicultural literature class are sharing their work studying “How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with book trailers and video talks to promote the book and spread awareness.

Using Adobe Spark, the ninth- through 12th-graders made their own slideshows with synopses of the Congolese refugee’s story. English had noticed that no trailers were available online for the book, so she challenged her class to create their own, which they plans to post online.

Senior Lamar Norman and freshman Martine Bickety created their trailer with photos and voiceover describing the book.

“It’s not something you see at all in the U.S. It brings you back to Earth when you think that stuff happens in other countries so frequently,” said Martine, whose dad is from Kenya and mother was a Peace Corps worker in Burundi.

“It’s crazy how people in the world need our help and they don’t live like we do,” Lamar added. “They want to be in the same shoes as us. It’s crazy that people go through a lot of struggles and they keep it to themselves and don’t say much unless you ask.”

The class has also had deep discussions on how the book connected to their own lives, including how poverty is different in the U.S. than in the Congo refugee camp; what it means to be homeless in different countries; cultural differences; and how depression and post-traumatic stress impacts people who have faced trauma and loss.

“I encourage you guys to go out into your community and find people who aren’t like you, get to know them, get to know the stories that are here and then build an impact here at home.”

Uwiringiyimana’s past of fleeing conflict and leaving her country behind resonated with students who read, discussed and created projects from her book, “How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child” over the past few weeks. The diverse district is home to many immigrants and refugees who also left war-torn countries.

“How Dare the Sun Rise” is a selection for Grandville-Wyoming Community Reads 2018, for which local students and community members read books, selected by age level, to foster dialogue. This year’s focus is on challenges for refugees around the world who are seeking safety and a better life.

“Since you have people who have walked in many of the paths that I have to get here, this story is also your story,” Uwiringiyimana told Godwin Heights students. “It is the story of your community, whether or not you realize it.

“The people who have lived some of this stuff live in your community. They are your neighbors, your friends, your teachers, your nurses, and because of that you need to treat this not as a memoir written by a girl from Africa but as a story that belongs in your community as well.”

One such person is Godwin Heights senior Jeanette Mukampabuka, also a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo, who was moved by Uwiringiyimana’s story.

“I went through some of the same situations she went through,” Jeanette said. “I would like everyone here to imagine what she went through and put yourself in her shoes. We can also share our stories by inspiring those around us.”

Along with a community presentation at the Kent District Library – Wyoming Branch, Uwiringiyimana also spoke at Wyoming and Grandville high schools. At Wyoming High School, about 200 students used her book as inspiration for writing their own stories for their student publication, “Finding Refuge in an Uncertain World.”

Targeted for Death

In her book, Uwiringiyimana describes a tumultuous life in Africa as part of  the minority tribe Banyamulenge, sometimes called Tutsi Congolese. She was born in Democratic Republic of Congo, and while her childhood was happy and filled with love, her family was uprooted many times to flee areas of conflict.

Uwiringiyimana said perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda genocide fled to neighboring countries and starting spreading the same ideas that had brainwashed people in Rwanda to murder each other. The effect was neighbors and former friends turning on each other, and the Banyamulenge people were a target.

“The rebels came and told our neighbors we were here to steal their resources and that we did not belong in Congo and that we hated them,” she recounted.

Discrimination increased against her people and, by 2004, the family faced constant threat. “Imagine your neighbors one day deciding that because of what you look like, your background, that you don’t deserve to live there. The rebels had convinced members of our community to purge us.”

By age 10, she lived in the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi, which was attacked by rebels who slaughtered 166 people, including her 6-year-old sister, Deborah.

Three years later, in 2007, she and remaining family members were resettled in New York, where she began her life as an American student. Uwiringiyimana graduated from a private high school, and is pursuing a major in international relations and diplomacy at Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She is cofounder and director of partnerships and communications for Jimbere Fund, an organization that aims to revitalize distressed communities in Congo.

She said she shares the horrific details of the massacre because she knows similar atrocities are still happening.

“I know it’s still going on. It just doesn’t make the front news,” she said, adding that along with violence, there is lack of food and clean water in refugee camps.

Life as an American

While growing up, Uwiringiyimana envisioned America as heaven, a place where everyone is wealthy and prosperous. “You never imagine communities like these: diverse communities that have challenges,” she told Godwin students. But as a young teenager, Uwiringiyimana experienced being an immigrant in the U.S.

“I started learning what it meant to be black in this country,” she said. “Though I had always dealt with discrimination, I had never been discriminated against because I was this color. I was discriminated against because my nose was shaped this way (a distinction between Tutsi and Hutu people), which is even more ridiculous.

‘The people who have lived some of this stuff live in your community. They are your neighbors, your friends, your teachers, your nurses.’ — author and refugee Sandra Uwiringiyimana

“As a refugee, it was probably some of the loneliest times that I had,” she continued. “You come into this country not speaking this language and then you’re not even welcome. Imagine coming from my experience and then coming into this community and hearing that you are not welcome here too?”

She said hurtful behavior she experienced in the U.S. was due to people not understanding what she came from. “When I got here I was surprised by the amount of need that there was to listen to each other’s stories in the U.S.”

Sophomore Bobbi Lee said she was was inspired.

“This is the first black female author I have ever read,” Bobbi said. “I like how outspoken she was, how  determined and strong, and how powerful her words are. … This inspires us to go for our dreams no matter who we are.”

While Uwiringiyimana said she is incredibly thankful she had the opportunity to come to the U.S., the life of a new immigrant is hard.

“Immigrating into this country is very, very difficult,” she told students. “You have the power  to make people’s lives easier by just being kind.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. Besides covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network, she writes freelance for the travel industry. Read Erin's full bio

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