Lessons In Humanity From My Refugee Mother

This article is a thought that has run through my head since the age of 16. Something that I have put on hold over and over again because I did not know I could bring justice to this topic and it never seemed like the right time.

I am a daughter to a born refugee mother; this was because my home country of Rwanda was ravaged with war. The Rwandan Genocide of 1994, which had been building up since the 1960’s, caused an immense amount of turmoil not only in my own life, but in the lives of thousands of others like me.  This is what caused my grandparents to move to Uganda as refugees.

My wish is not to re-tell this tragedy, but to speak of what it brought upon humanity and what such tragedies still do to humanity. The stories I have heard from my mother, aunties, uncles, grandparents and friends do not give the idea that one leaves their home simply because they want to suffer hardship. Instead, all of the people I have encountered have one thing in common: that they were all running from a threat to their lives, a threat to their humanity.

My mother’s story is one of hardship, but also one of family. The stories she tells me and my sisters over and over are often filled with laughter. Like the one where she must have been around 5 years old or younger and had to go fetch milk from the next town from the refugee compound they lived in.  She walked miles and while on her way she met another young girl going the same way.  They played and lost count of time and when they both got to the next village they quickly grabbed their milk and headed back home in a hurry. By the time she got home, half of the milk had poured out of the small jerrycan. She was so innocent she told her parents exactly what happened, that she met a friend and the rest was almost of no concern to her. She had done her duty. Grandma normally laughs at how naïve she was and of course, as a parent, she could only jokingly chastise her and laugh about it with grandma. Other stories include how most of her best friends in the refugee camp were Ugandan, and how the boss for her first real job after college was Scottish, and how her sister had the cutest crush on Indian men.

My mother’s stories are not to negate the terrible times they went through, like how grandma had to leave the camp and go work in the city to provide to a family of 8, while grandpa stayed at home at took care of the girls even with no sight, completely blind.  Or how sometimes my grandparents did not eat to make sure their girls did.  Or how the milk she would collect was not always paid for, but rather on credit for the next collection.  Or even how sometimes they had to add a Ugandan last name to their birth given names to get into college.

These stories have only brought out the humane side in not such a humane situation. That although the negativity and hardship was going on, children still played, went to school and had support of the family and some understanding from the community around them despite the difference in culture. There was humanity.

Today’s refugee system is seemingly only getting worse and worse.  Yes, on the ground countries are saying they have welcomed hundreds of thousands, but only to simply open the boarders then lock them up in impoverished areas, call them aliens (better yet undocumented aliens for those that did not get a smooth sailing), a document to show that they were running for their humanity. We have been treated as just a mere number.  Another statistic, another enemy, another worldly being invading spaces.

Yes there are safe houses, there are houses and detention centers where refugees are meant to be treated humanely, helped and re-introduced to a welcoming society. This is not what these places are.  Rather, these are places of isolation.  How many people go out of their way to interact with these ‘aliens’?  How many say hello and introduce them to a new language, a new way of being? How many people make them feel safe?  How many young girls can go get milk at the corner store without insults being hurled at them? How many young men are bullied into having to resort to violence? Today, refugees are leaving their destroyed homes in search of humanity. In search of a place where your very existence is not a threat to your life.  Imagine the irony. They are coming from places where death is so bad it starts to look good after all of your people have died and your communities have been destroyed, only to get to a new home and be called alien, to be imprisoned and told that you steal the jobs you can barely apply for, and your accomplishments are measured by blood, sweat and tears. To be told to go back where you came from, for politicians to separate parents and children, the cycle seems to be neverending.

I am not speaking of a hard task, I am simply speaking of humanity. What great difference it would make for people to interact with refugees in their areas. To share stories, ask for help, for children to play, for the many single mothers to speak to another woman in the community who speaks the native tongue of their new home. To allow true assimilation and comfort within the community and to stop holding people in prisons to go through more torture when they are fleeing from it. This is not politics, but the simple rules of humanity and communal living. We fear the unknown and as long as both sides do not know each other and have not heard and experienced the stories passed mouth to ear, fear, lies and the single negative narrative will keep going and affect both sides. Home is where your people are and it cannot be home when there is such a lack of humanity within the fabric of our society.

Written by Melody Ingabire

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