The Refugee Connection

For this fellowship, I was able to choose a region that I preferred for placement- but after that, it was left to the gods of chance (aka the selection committees and the host embassies) to decide who would go where. In May, I found out that I had been shortlisted for Rwanda. When I received that email, my stomach and heart lurched in union – with excitement. The fellowship attempts to pair Fellows with areas and projects that match their areas of expertise, and Rwanda is a country reinvented (in a manner of speaking) by refugees, a population that I have worked with for more than three years. I’m involved with the Refugee Concerns Interest Section, a small group of educators within TESOL who work with refugee students, resettlement efforts, or other community or international nonprofit organizations. I recently wrote about my experience in our RCIS newsletter.

rwandacover11As I said, Rwanda is a country new-born from refugees. Many people look at 1994 as the re-start of this country, a rebooting that came after the damaging horror of the genocide. Really, the country in 1994 was struggling to survive the extreme effects of the genocide, which left thousands dead and caused nearly two million to flee. Death and flight claimed the intelligentsia and professional populations in large measures, resulting in the loss of nearly 80% of medical professional (for example). The country struggled to rebuild not only the social fiber which allowed people to live in harmony with each other, but the social necessities of a functioning society: hospitals, medical clinics, schools, universities.   

Without getting into the lengthy history that proceeded the genocide, one group of Rwandans, many of whom were designated as Tutsis, fled the country earlier in the century, settling in places like Uganda to the north and wishing to return home. The current president, Paul Kagame, is of this group. He was born outside of his nation, a refugee by birth, and returned as a part of the rebel army that eventually ended the genocide and took power in 1994. The Rwandan government has made the return of refugees to be a priority, with all but nearly 100,000 returning (from Rwanda, Inc. by Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond, Palgrave, 2014). 

The students that I will teach as a part of my fellowship will be young college students, probably 18-21 years old, born just before or after the genocide. Many will have begun their lives on the run from the terror, or will remember living in crowded, diseased refugees camps. Many will have lost parents to genocidaires while in the country, or to the rampant polio and typhoid that claimed thousands more lives in the camps in Burundi and Congo. 

Working with the IRC‘s resettled refugee population in California has prepared me for this challenge of working with students who have seen greater tragedy that I will ever, who have survived hell, who spent their young years not playing tag with their brothers in a suburban back yard but mourning the loss of their siblings, parents, and other family members. This means that I will learn as much from them as they can learn from me. Lessons in verb tenses traded for lessons in forgiveness and resilience? As often is the case for English teachers abroad, I will more likely be the student there.

– Image from Time Magazine, 16 May 1994

– For more information about recent news for refugees repatriating to Rwanda, see this recent article from AllAfrica

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