Rwandan refugee reaches out

While there is no conventional path to Yale, the journey of Clemantine Wamariya ’13 has been particularly arduous. She relocated from one African refugee camp to another for seven years in her early childhood before finally arriving in the United States and resuming her formal education.

Wamariya became a refugee after leaving her hometown of Kigali due to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Six years old at the time, she traveled to multiple refugee camps across Africa with her older sister, Claire, before she was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2000. Since arriving in the U.S., Wamariya has spoken at forums across the country to raise awareness for humanitarian issues through her story.

But while she has spent many years talking about her experience as a refugee, Wamariya only returned to her home country for the first time this past spring, with Reach Out, a Yale undergraduate organization that plans international service trips. Before coming to Yale, Wamariya’s activism centered on raising awareness through speaking events, but in the year since coming to Yale, she has taken an even more hands-on approach, working with many different campus and outside groups to help refugees, genocide victims and war survivors.

“We could sit in the library all day and not talk to anyone and get all A’s, but what does it mean?” she said. “I’ve realized that if you’re living your life without helping others, at least for me, then my life is pointless.”

FROM CAMP TO CAMP

Wamariya describes a pleasant childhood in which neighborhood children played dodge ball in the streets and vacations were spent visiting her grandparents’ home in the scenic city of Butare. But Rwanda was in a state of tribal conflict, dating back to its colonial days, when Belgian authorities forced citizens to carry identity cards that characterized them as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Tension between the Hutus and Tutsis manifested itself through various political coups throughout the second half of the 20th century, and the Rwandan Civil War broke out in 1990 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel group, invaded the country from Uganda.

“I did not know at that age what a genocide was or what it meant to kill another person. I grew up with all my neighbors [as] friends,” Wamariya said. “I was very naïve about everything, just like any five- or six-year-old child. I had never heard about a Hutu, a Tutsi or a Twa.”

One day, Hutu-Tutsi conflict erupted in the streets near Wamariya’s house, and she and her sister were forced to leave their home. Wamariya recalled getting picked up early from school as people stormed the streets, banging pots and drums. Through her six-year-old eyes, the event seemed like a celebration. A family friend took her and her sister, then 16, to their grandparents’ house to wait for their parents and two siblings. The house was attacked before her parents arrived, and the two sisters fled by themselves into the maize fields behind the house.

“We were hiding for a very long time, thinking that the screaming and shooting would stop,” Wamariya said. “But it didn’t stop for a very long time, so we decided to keep going. It was very early in the morning when we heard the knocking, and in the cornfield we just kept going, crawling for days and days.”

The first refugee camp they reached was in Burundi. Their journey after that was a complex route of crisscrossing lines through southern Africa. Over the course of seven years, the sisters aged, and Claire got married and had two children. In 2000, Claire was able to arrange for the International Organization for Migration to assist herself, her children and her sister with immigration to the United States.

SPEAKING, STUDYING, APPLYING

After arriving in the U.S., Wamariya was able to enroll in school for the first time since fleeing Rwanda. She began the sixth grade at a small Christian school near her home in Chicago and later attended the New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. While attending the school, in 2006, she won the Oprah Winfrey National High School Essay Contest and received a surprise on the show: a reunion with her parents and other siblings after 12 years.

During high school, Wamariya went on to make two subsequent appearances on the show and to speak to a host of other organizations: religious groups, human rights groups, high schools, universities and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

It was during her speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that Wamariya first met Tom Bernstein ’74 LAW ’77, president of Chelsea Piers and council member for the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Wamariya was one of four speakers to present at the November 2006 opening event for “Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?,” an exhibit of photographs from the Sudanese genocide, presented on the exterior walls of Holocaust Museum in association with the organization DARFUR/DARFUR.

“Clemantine spoke of the Rwandan genocide and the world’s need to speak up,” Bernstein said. “I was extraordinarily impressed by what she had to say and her unusual poise and quiet charisma as she spoke.”

In subsequent meetings, Bernstein told Wamariya of his positive experiences at Yale and suggested that it might be a good fit for her. Wamariya was receptive to the idea and ultimately became attracted to the University after discovering pages available in her native language of Kinyarwanda on the Yale website. After applying, she visited Yale and stayed with Oluwadamilola Oladeru ’11, who is from Nigeria.

Wamariya was impressed by the diverse stories and interests of Oladeru and her friends, and decided she would belong at Yale. She completed a postgraduate year at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., before enrolling at Yale as a member of Timothy Dwight College.

REACHING OUT, LOOKING BACK

Still, it was not until after Wamariya had enrolled at Yale that she went back to her home country. This past spring break, Wamariya traveled to Rwanda for the first time since she left as a child. The visit, organized through Yale’s Reach Out program, included eight days of service at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, an orphanage near Lake Mugesera in the Eastern Province, and five days of travel within the country. The team built cisterns to gather cleaning water for the orphanage, an important commodity due to the high cost of municipal water.

“They were all very supportive because it was an emotional experience,” Wamariya said of her Reach Out team. “Being around them, I didn’t feel like a Rwandan returning to Rwanda but a Yalie returning to my country.”

While Reach Out has been making service trips since 2003, this was the first trip to Rwanda. Both Wamariya and the trip’s leaders, Haley Cohen ’11 and Josh Gordon ’11, spoke fondly about the experience, and Cohen and Gordon stressed the impact of having Wamariya along with them on the trip.

“She was a very important bridge from our group to the kids because many of the kids spoke only Kinyarwanda, and she was able to translate,” Cohen said. “I really think she gave our group more credibility.”

“The kids loved her,” Gordon added.

Cohen recalled an amusing story from their work carrying bricks to build cisterns for the orphanage.

“All of us were dying, sweating, carrying maybe two bricks. I look over and Clemantine is wearing a white wife beater, skintight leggings and not breaking a sweat with a pile of bricks up to here,” Cohen said, indicating a height from her waistline to her neck.

Gordon added that Wamariya worked closely with women in the village, building off her experience with the humanitarian organization Women for Women International.

“She couldn’t walk around without a trail of three or four children following her for the entire week,” Gordon said.

‘UNUSUAL COURAGE’

Now in her second year at Yale, Wamariya speaks of the need for her fellow Elis to be “weapons for humanity,” to take action to improve the lives of those in need.

Since coming to Yale, she has been active in STAND: the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network, the Yale African Student Association, the Yale Refugee Project and Reach Out. Outside of Yale, Wamariya continues to work with the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Women for Women International.

Through her work in the Yale Refugee Project, she mentors an Iraqi family, helping them with finding work, keeping the bills paid and other facets of daily life. Still, she said her trip to Rwanda inspired her to make a stronger commitment toward the cause of Congolese refugees, who also suffered many hardships that she witnessed during her time at refugees camps. Wamariya has integrated Congolese influences into her modern dance and hip-hop routines as a way to raise cultural awareness, and she plans on becoming involved in the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) of New Haven this semester.

“Even among Yale’s extraordinary undergraduates, Clemantine’s life story is one of unusual hardship, unusual courage and unusual determination,” said Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel, who is now also the master of Timothy Dwight College.

Despite the struggles she encountered in her long route to Yale, Wamariya said she still takes time to appreciate everything she has.

“There are so many people who have lost their families through wars and genocide and hunger. I’m really grateful for my life,” Wamariya said. “I’ve realized that there is a way that life can be simple, that you can be thankful for the hot water, for the streets you walk on, for the rights that you have and for having parents.”

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