Overcoming

‘We have nothing and you’re taking the only thing that keeps us going, which is family and love’

Sandra Uwiringiyimana spoke candidly about how she’s making sense and making art from the horrors of her past

At the Women in the World San Antonio Salon on Monday night, founder and CEO Tina Brown welcomed Sandra Uwiringiyimana to the stage. Brown briefed the audience on Uwiringiyimana’s plight in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and later at a refugee camp in Burundi prior to her coming to the United States, where she’s now a citizen and attends college.

The 22-year-old has witnessed incredible horrors. Her family, whose ancestors originally hailed from Rwanda, were for generations the victims of tribal and ethnic violence. Eventually her family, nine people in all, were sent to a refugee camp in Burundi, where they thought they’d finally be safe. They were wrong. Caught up in the civil war that was erupting there, Burundi rebels mistook them for members of another ethnic group. The rebels killed 166 people in the refugee camp one night, and among the dead were Uwiringiyimana’s 6-year-old sister, her aunt, three cousins, and her great uncle.

When asked by Brown how she’s managed to survive her ordeals with such strength, Uwiringiyimana replied, “Honestly, I don’t know if I can call it ‘strength’ because, from a very young age, we grew up in a country that … is synonymous with war. I can’t call it strength because I have seen people, generations — my mom, my mom’s mom, her mother — they all went through the same thing that I went through. So, it’s not strength,” she said, “it’s simply because we’ve normalized war.”

Uwiringiyimana said her parents sheltered her and her siblings from the hatred many in Congo exhibited toward her tribe, the Banyamulenge. Despite that, she told the audience that she still always felt a little out of place in Congo.

“It was the worst night of my life,” Uwiringiyimana said when recalling the brutal slaughter inside the Burundi refugee camp that claimed the lives of six her her family members. “I still have not figured out how to put it into words,” she said, “going to bed and waking up in the face of … just … horror. Seeing bodies everywhere — your friends and family. And finally, those people [the attackers] have succeeded in making you feel like you are nothing.”

“Your family is getting slaughtered and no one is doing anything about it.” Uwiringiyimana said the attackers, a disparate group of militia men and rebels fueled by a racist agenda, crossed the border from the Congo into Burundi and attacked the refugee camp. The whole experience left her shaken and bewildered. “Who attacks a refugee camp?” she wondered aloud. “We have nothing and you’re taking the only thing that keeps us going, which is family and love.”

With the help of the United Nations, Uwiringiyimana and her family made it to the U.S. They were resettled in Rochester, New York, — arriving in the upstate city in the middle of winter, and spoke no English. “It’s possibly the coldest city in America,” Uwiringiyimana said.

But Uwiringiyimana has managed to flourish despite her many hardships and, in addition to her studies, has become an activist. Next year, she’ll have a memoir published, How Dare the Sun Rise, co-written with Women in the World contributor Abigail Pesta, about her turbulent young life and her ability to overcome unimaginable adversity. Watch the full video of her panel above.

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