Alone but Connected in Rwanda

While I was studying abroad, my mom and dad, Mary Jean and Bob, were able to meet my mom and dad, Maria and Bosco. That is, my biological mom and dad were able to meet my host mom and dad. During the week they visited me in Rwanda, my parents were treated to a very sincere and genuine hospitality, which included a visit to Maria and Bosco’s new house in the town of Nyamata.

Nyamata is in southeastern Rwanda, about 40 kilometers from Kigali, where I was staying. We visited Nyamata during the day, and by the time we left, the sun had set and the dark night sky greeted us for our drive back. Fils, my host brother, and I sat in the back of the pickup truck, which afforded an incomparable view of the beautiful night sky.

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I’ve seen stars before, but seeing stars like these was a first. Initially the stars began to appear slowly. However after my eyes adjusted to the dark, the number of stars seemed to multiply each second. In reality, the number of stars in the sky was steady, but the number I could see was growing exponentially.

After a few moments, I tried to begin to name the stars and constellations. Looking up at each individual star, I silently wondered to myself about the naming of each star. When did it happen? Who named it?

And as I was thinking, I began to reflect on the current refugee crisis throughout the world. Allow me to explain.

Whether or not we can see them, like the stars, refugees exist. Also like stars, they exist as individuals but also in relationships. And just like stars, each refugee (and each person for that matter) is beautiful. Constellations remind me of the families that have fled their homelands, individuals but connected.

At my home in Long Island, light pollution prevents me from seeing stars and their unique beauty. Distractions are part of our daily life. The process of stepping back, retreating, is what reminded me that individuals, not numbers, are fleeing war, persecution and violence.

During my study abroad experience, I was able to meet a refugee from Burundi I will call Jon to protect his identity. Through our conversations and friendship, my way of looking at the world has forever shifted. Talking to Jon, who speaks English, French, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, is humbling. Like me, he has three siblings. He lives with his brother in Rwanda, while his sister still lives in Burundi. His oldest brother lives in Maine with his mom. During college, Jon studied Computer Science. He also dedicated his time to a Christian movement that focused on preaching and teaching by example.

For Jon living as a refugee has been painful. He fled Burundi in April 2015 after hearing that President Pierre Nkurunziza would run for a third term, which violates Burundi’s constitution. Jon believes that the United States has not done enough and should apply more diplomatic force.

While he has been welcomed to Rwanda, leaving Burundi was particularly challenging. When Jon first arrived, he dreamed of when he would return home, especially to his friends and his church. Jon hopes to return to Burundi soon. His girlfriend still lives there, and he hopes to start an NGO that will educate youth. Seeing the challenges of the students, including a lack of resources, Jon always emphasizes how education can help prevent conflicts and allow people to fully flourish. 

During my time studying abroad, my privileges have become exceedingly obvious to me. Safety and security, two constants in my life, is what other people dream of. Yet I did nothing to be granted this safety and security; I was just born lucky.

Refugees are a group, but they are also individuals. Refugees are grandparents, students, teachers, engineers and so much more. They are our brothers and sisters. I hope that every time I look up at the night sky I will remember them. 

Robert McCarthy is a second year at the University of Virginia, majoring in religious studies and public policy. This past semester he studied abroad in Kigali, Rwanda, through the School of International Training.

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