Editor’s note: The following is an edited excerpt from Karisa Keasey’s book, “When You Can’t Go Home: Portraits of Refugees in the Pacific Northwest.” The book can be purchased on Keasey’s website, karisakeasey.com.
“I REMEMBER WHEN I was young,” says Jeanne, with a bittersweet smile. The sunlight streaks through the blinds of her Kent home, highlighting the gold flecks in her dark eyes. She fidgets with the hem of her wax fabric, as she recalls a distant memory. “Every day, I told my mom that I have to be [a] big person.”
Jeanne wanted to be just like her mother, a Rwandan matriarch with a warm, bustling home, where company never went home hungry or lonely. A new mother herself, Jeanne was eager to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “I wished to stay in [the] village, I wished to finish my school … and have [a] good family … And I got it. But with the war, everything changed.”
As political discontent between the Tutsi and Hutu people continued to spread, whispers cast a foreboding shadow on Jeanne’s new role as a young wife and a mother.
“Before the war … Tutsi and Hutus lived in peace together,” she says. While her husband was away for work, Jeanne stayed home, huddled close to her 1-year-old son, rubbing her growing belly. As the due date for her second child drew near, she prayed for the tension to dissipate.
Little did she know that their country, already four years into civil war, was on the precipice of the fastest widespread slaughter in history, which would soon force her from her mother and family. The Hutu president of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, Hutu president of the neighboring nation of Burundi, were killed April 6, 1994, when their plane was hit by a missile. Then all hell broke loose.
“That is where it all started,” whispers Jeanne: “the long journey of the darkest days of my life.”
BEGINNING ON THE morning of April 7, 1994, the Rwandan Genocide started, with 800,000 to 1 million people massacred in just more than three months. Blood ran through the streets as people were slaughtered in their homes.
“Anyone who appeared to be Tutsi was killed without hesitation,” recalls Jeanne. Determined to save her family, she tied her son securely around her back. She could feel his body trembling as his sobs mingled with the curdling cries of neighbors. On swollen feet, she ran with hundreds of other civilians toward the shelter of the trees in the Congo rainforest, hoping to find refuge. Even when the soles of her feet bled, still she pressed on. “I was in so much pain … I fought my limits because I found a reason to persevere, and that was my babies … the little boy I was carrying on my back and the one in my womb … my entire existence had lost the taste of hope for myself.” As they trekked on, hunger, thirst and infection caused by wounds from the massacre began to claim their victims one by one. Cries from men, women and children soon were replaced by the deafening silence of death. Eventually, Jeanne reached a refugee camp in the Congo-Brazzaville.
“Many people lost sisters and brothers. I also lost family members.” Night and day, people were killed, with violence coming from every corner. “Each day felt like a year … I was so young, and the world took so much away from me,” Jeanne says. “But God never stopped watching over me.” During those dark days, her faith in God brought her hope.
Over the span of 100 days, more than 70% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was massacred, in addition to many Hutu civilians. Like thousands of other Rwandans, Jeanne sought asylum in a refugee camp on the borders of the Congo, but it came with a cost.
“All around there was complete destruction … we were living like animals in the forest. Cholera and diarrhea killed many refugees in the camp.” Amid the smells of sewage in the air and contaminated water, Jeanne brought her second son into the world. She prayed that God would save them. Jeanne’s prayers were answered when she and her children were reunited with her husband. Jeanne and her husband found a place to live in the Congo, where they ran a boutique to support their growing family. Jeanne gave birth to three more children: a girl named Aimée, and twins Boris and Ghislain. As her babies took their first steps, Jeanne felt like a newborn herself, shakily learning to navigate everyday life after trauma.
“I felt the urge to quickly heal, because I didn’t want my kids to be associated with the horrific war. I didn’t want to take the innocence from them like the world had done to me.” Though she kept her grief quiet, some images are engraved in her mind. Jeanne confesses, “I still live some of those days every night when I go to bed. They haunt me.”
AMID THE PAIN, Jeanne’s resolution to fight for a better life for her children only grew stronger. “It was these little humans’ smiles that warmed my heart and gave it a new reason to keep beating.” Soon, she would need that resolution to overcome a second hardship.
In 2006, Jeanne and her husband divorced, as the stress of survival took a toll on their marriage. From then on, Jeanne alone cared for her five children. Without child support or help from the government, Jeanne worked tirelessly putting her children through school and providing for their everyday needs.
“It was very difficult being a single woman with five kids,” Jeanne says. “Living for them is an honor for me. I have chosen to raise them with love, and fear nothing.”
Aimée, Jeanne’s daughter, recalls her mother denying herself food so that she and her brothers could eat. “Because my mom was positive, she didn’t want you to see that she wasn’t eating, but I saw it … It was hard watching my mom work so hard.” Even as children, Aimée and her siblings followed in their mom’s selfless footsteps, working hard to please her and take care of their family. Though they had little, Aimée remembers saving up the meager pennies she earned from odd jobs to buy food for her neighbors in need. Aimée promised her mom and herself, “I will never give up on my dreams and to make you happy.”
Though the conditions in the Congo were safer than Rwanda, survival was a daily struggle. Refugees were treated differently, and often derogatorily. “It wasn’t our country,” says Aimée. “We were called outsiders even though we were born there.” Though Jeanne and her children struggled with their identity, Aimée and her siblings grew up embracing Congolese culture as their own. Barely scraping by, Jeanne knew that the Congo was only a temporary solution if her children were to have a future.
IN 2003, JEANNE had applied for refugee status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For 10 years, Jeanne faithfully attended health screenings, interviews and applications, her five children in tow. Every year they waited, to no avail. Finally, in 2013, she was informed that the UNHCR was placing her family in a foreign land, in a city she had yet to hear of — Seattle.
Though Jeanne was apprehensive and fearful of starting over for the third time, she could feel the hum of opportunity for her children as she landed in the United States. Her children, too, felt the relief.
“After years of fear and instability, we were excited to come to this land of opportunity that we can now call home,” Aimée says, brimming with gratitude. “Here we have started a new life — though it has not been easy.”
Simple things like going to school, grocery shopping, answering the door or eating American food came fast at Jeanne’s family — a tidal wave of change. Aimée remembers feeling overwhelmed at first. “I was having to navigate a new culture, language, and even the food at lunchtime was terrifying. I would practice English words at home so I could speak clearly, and began to join extracurricular clubs.” World Relief helped Jeanne and her children navigate these changes and are a continued support in their lives.
Currently, three of Jeanne’s children attend university, and the two oldest boys have graduated with degrees in civil engineering and environmental science — something they had only dreamed about before. The tables have turned. Today, Jeanne’s children work tirelessly to make their mother proud, and it is her smile that gives them reason to keep going.
Ghislain wrote in a school essay, “Seeing my mom and her motivation … that will always be with me wherever I go. I may not always have the skills … but with drive and motivation, nothing is gonna stop me … I want to give back to kids like me, because God has given us so much.”
Jeanne has raised her children with the same principles of love and hospitality that her mom taught her. The three youngest come home from college to live with Jeanne during breaks. Aimée speaks with a fiery determination: “I carry on with a warrior spirit that was instilled in me. … Changing legacies and affecting the future take a special kind of courage; I know, because I have my mother’s example to follow.”
Jeanne is often tired from working nights, but she is content. “Although my journey has not been what I expected as a child, today I can say that my heart is at peace. God never ceased to be there by my side.”
Jeanne works with World Relief, helping refugees like herself, and opening her home to anyone in need. She is a matriarch with a warm, bustling home, where no company goes home hungry or lonely, just like her mother. Devastatingly, Jeanne’s mother passed away before she was able to return to Rwanda to see her again. Finding solace in carrying on her legacy through herself and her children, Jeanne continues to love and care for those around her.