SEATAC — When Sharon Bamage immigrated to America 20 years ago, fleeing genocide and civil war, she spoke four languages. None was English.
Bamage, 44, remembers difficult early years in the U.S., in an unfamiliar culture, unsure how to complete the most mundane tasks.
“You cannot pick up the phone, because you don’t know what to say. You go to the store, you have money, you don’t know how to use it,” she recalled.
Two decades later, Bamage is married with two kids, owns a small caregiving business and has added that fifth, crucial, language to her repertoire.
And she’s joined a small cadre of Rwandan women, like herself, who have formed a support group of sorts to help each other navigate the quotidian bothers of modern American life but also to reconnect and reckon with the country and culture they left behind.
They meet once a month to talk about their lives. They eat and dance and speak Kinyarwanda, an official language of Rwanda. And they assiduously avoid any talk of the ethnic divisions that tore the African country apart in the 1990s, resulting in one of the worst genocides in decades.
“I’d lost my identity, I didn’t know who I was, where I belong, who are my people,” said Divine Mutesi, who started the group, the Ubumwe Women’s Association, two years ago. “We had all these tribal things going on, and hatred. I just wanted to get to healing somehow, and I wanted to create something that brings people together.”
Ubumwe means unity in Kinyarwanda.
The women bring their families. In between meetings they set up conference calls, so they can all get on the phone and talk about how each other’s week is going.
“Life in America does not allow us to stay together as back home,” Bamage said. “Life is so busy here that we have no life like back home for community. So we come together to support each other.”
No talk about the past
Mutesi, a housing specialist at a transitional shelter, started the group because, nearly 20 years after emigrating to the U.S., she felt like she didn’t quite belong. Like she didn’t have a community.
She talked to the two local Rwandan women she knew, asking them for names of other Rwandan in the area. Then she cold-called them, asking them to come to a meeting in Kent, figuring they would be searching for the same connections she was seeking.
The women came from around the region, from Kent and Puyallup and Joint Base Lewis McChord. Some were born in Rwanda; some, like Mutesi, were born in neighboring countries to Rwandan parents.
“When we came here, we had such a traumatic life back home. People deal with that every day,” said Mutesi, 42, who emigrated from Congo in 2000.
It’s been 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, when soldiers and citizens from the country’s Hutu majority killed more than 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority in the span of three months.
There are about a dozen women in Mutesi’s mixed-tribe group, which is open to all who identify as Rwandan. But they assiduously avoid talking about the past — about genocide, war or ethnic affiliations.
“People don’t want to identify which tribe they belong to because they want to bring peace,” Mutesi said. “All of us are trying to avoid as much as possible even saying the word, because the word itself brings back the story, brings back the past, brings back the memories.”
“I’m Rwandese, it doesn’t matter if you are Hutu or Tutsi as long as you are Rwandese,” Mutesi said. “We are sisters and brothers.”
The group is like family
Last spring, Diane Kamari, who’s been in the group for about a year, had her second child. Her husband, who’s in the Army, was deployed to Kuwait shortly after that. Her parents and sisters were in Rwanda and South Carolina. The other women in the group were like a family. They planned a baby shower. They drove down to JBLM to cook for her.
“They did everything,” Kamari, 35, said. “I didn’t even need to ask them.”
Anne Jordan, 40, was born in Congo. Her mother is Rwandan, her father was Congolese. Her family fled both countries. Her mother and brothers had been imprisoned in Congo during that country’s wars of the late 1990s because of their Rwandan heritage.
She hid with Congolese cousins, ultimately moving by herself to Cameroon, then Connecticut, as a refugee, and ultimately arriving in Puyallup in 2004.
“I didn’t know where my mama was, I didn’t know where my sisters were, it was only me,” Jordan said. “Just me and other refugees.”
She met her husband in Puyallup, and they have two sons, 8 and 6. When, more than a decade after she arrived, her mother came from Rwanda to live with her (Jordan’s siblings live in Rwanda, London, Idaho and South Dakota), she had a question.
“She was like, ‘where are the people from Rwanda?’ I said, ‘I don’t know anybody from Rwanda,’ ” Jordan recalled.
When she met Mutesi in 2017, she was initially reluctant to get involved in the group. Jordan speaks Lingala, Swahili, French and English, but, because she was not born in Rwanda, does not speak Kinyarwanda. She thought she might not feel comfortable in the Rwandan group, unable to speak the country’s national language. But it wasn’t a problem.
“I got to meet all the girls; we talked,” Jordan said. “We don’t really know the culture very well here and it’s hard to deal with certain things, but when we get together it helps.”
They talk about the wrinkles and nuances of American life that can be foreign to recent immigrants.
Jordan owns a four-employee office cleaning service, but years ago, shortly after she arrived in Puyallup, she lost her job. She exhausted her meager savings paying bills. She never realized she was eligible for unemployment insurance.
And raising kids is very different in the U.S. than it is in Congo and Rwanda, Jordan said. Here, she said, children talk back, they tell you what they want and what they don’t want, they don’t want the food that you cook.
“In Africa it’s pretty much listen to your parents, they know your destiny,” Jordan said. “Some women were having a really hard time, like, my child is really bad, he talks back, she tells me what she thinks. So, we’re like no, that’s how it is here.”
When the group held a family and friends picnic recently at Angle Lake Park in SeaTac, there were huge trays of spiced chicken with onions and rice and peas, and also hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad.’
‘We have to look forward’
The Rwandese community here is not large. The population is small enough that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t break the nationality out in its counts.
Still, Jordan thinks there are others like her — reluctant to get involved with the group because of the trauma they left behind in Africa.
“We’ve been trying to get more, trying to convince them,” Jordan said. “Come on, you have to be together, you can’t be by yourself, you have to connect.”
Batya Friedman, a University of Washington professor who was the lead investigator on a massive oral history project called “Voices From the Rwanda Tribunal,” said it’s common that Rwandans avoid speaking about the past.
Rwanda even has laws — that have drawn criticism for infringing on free speech — intended to unite the population that make it illegal to marginalize, mock or do anything to dehumanize a person or group. In Rwanda, Friedman said, people now speak of perpetrators and survivors, not Hutus and Tutsis.
“I’m not at all surprised that the Rwandans in the diaspora, when they come together, would speak Kinyarwanda, would not talk about their tribal identity and would all work together,” Friedman said. “That this group of people in the diaspora are coming together and building a community and somehow restoring or healing from the past in this constructive way is a good story.”
For Mutesi, the group is both a way to reconnect with the culture she left behind and to move beyond the past.
“We can be there for each other, supporting each other,” she said. “Whatever happened back home, we are not there. We have children here, we have to look forward, what can we do together.”