The Star Ledger
NEWARK — Eugenie Mukeshimana didn’t need reminders of the genocide that tore through her native Rwanda during the 1990s, but they came anyway.
There was the time she went to work while still living in Rwanda and found that a funny co-worker she often had coffee with had disappeared; the rumor mill at her job would later report that the co-worker had been arrested and accused of killing dozens of Rwandans like her during a three-month-long genocide there.
Other life events such as attending a funeral of a Tutsi she didn’t know or taking a picture at a wedding with other survivors could bring back the haunting memories she had of months spent in hiding with her infant daughter.
Mukeshimana, 42, knew in those moments that she needed to leave the “crime scene.”
“It feels weird calling a country a crime scene, but that’s what it is,” she said. “Every corner is connected to the experience.”
It’s been about 13 years since Mukeshimana left Rwanda, and she is past trying to ‘escape.’ Now, the Newark resident has a new mission: helping other Rwandans scared by the genocide’s horrors build a new life in the United States.
Mukeshimana was about eight months pregnant and living with her husband when Rwandan President and Hutu leader Juvnal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali International Airport on April 6, 1994.
By that time Hutus and Tutsi, descriptors used to define the remnants of the colonial aristocratic and peasant classes respectively, had been feuding for decades.
Though Hutus controlled the government, The Rwandan Patriotic Front, a group of mostly rebel Tutsis, were looking to seize power. Meanwhile, the Rwandan government was facing international pressure to form a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsis, angering some extremist Hutus.
After Habyarimana’s plane crash, Hutu extremist leaders recruited other Hutus to execute Tutsis and moderate Hutu leaders.
As the killing sprees across Rwanda intensified, Mukeshimana and her husband decided it would be safer to split up and hide.
Mukeshimana was eventually taken in by a family who hid her under their children’s bed, she was found after three weeks and eventually taken captive to cook for a member of the Hutu militia. She was rescued by the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
When the genocide ended, Mukeshimana discovered that her husband, father, cousins and many friends had been killed.
“By the time the genocide was over I had an infant and I was homeless,” she said. “Everything was gone.”
Mukeshimana started to rebuild her life in Rwanda. She studied English from the radio, music and discarded newspapers, eventually learning enough to work as an accountant at a human rights organization, which oversaw a hospital.
But the effects of the genocide seemed to seep into every part of her life.
Mukeshimana decided to leave Rwanda in 1998, and obtained the necessary permissions in 2001.
An American friend arranged for her and her daughter to stay for free with a couple in Albany, N.Y., where she attended college. Friends of that family pitched in for her tuition, helping her to graduate with a degree in social work.
“It was a village,” Mukeshimana said. “People came together. That’s what Americans are good at. They help when they know how to help.”
“If the genocide never happened what would life be like?
Mukeshimana and her daughter are permanent U.S. residents and plan to apply for American citizenship, she said.
After working as a social worker at homeless shelters for a few years Mukeshimana decided to help other genocide survivors.
In 2010, she started the Genocide Survivors Support Network in South Orange to help genocide survivors with the issues immigrants often struggle with in the United States, such as obtaining a work permit or finding a place to live.
Since then, her network has helped dozens of mostly Rwandan genocide survivors get an education, start careers and receive emotional support.
consolee2-pic.jpgConsolee Nishimwe was inspired to write a book about her experience during the Rwandan genocide after joining the Genocide Survivors Support Network.Photo courtesy of Consolee Nishimwe
Mostly, survivors say, they just like talking to Mukeshimana, because she has had experiences similar to theirs.
Mukeshimana said genocide survivors often feel isolated and withdraw from relationships with other people because they don’t think others will understand their experiences.
Other times survivors suffer from nightmares, vivid flashbacks or extreme paranoia that they are in a dangerous situation. Some Rwandans who lived through the genocide have survivor’s guilt and wonder why they should seek happiness if so many they know have been killed, Mukeshimana said.
“They suffer in silence,” she said. “It’s hard for them to explain it someone.”
Mukeshimana’s network also works with a group of lawyers who provide services pro bono to help survivors obtain asylum status and a work permit.
“I wish I was a millionaire so I could give her half,” said Alain Kayiranga, a genocide survivor who recently connected with Mukeshimana. “She’s an angel.”
Kayiranga, 24, is a Rwandan native who moved from Georgia to New Jersey about a year ago to be closer to Mukeshimana’s network of survivors.
Mukeshimana found a family in West Orange who has given Kayiranga a room to stay, for free. She also connected him with a lawyer who is working to win him asylum in the United States. He says he meets with Mukeshimana about once a week to talk about things he has trouble telling others.
Consolee Nishimwe knows the benefits of connecting with other survivors. The now 34-year-old said she lived through the trauma of being raped and infected with HIV. She also lost her father, younger brothers and grandparents during the Rwandan genocide.
When she arrived to New York about 13 years ago, Nishimwe said she often avoided sharing anything too personal about her experience, even as she suffered from nightmares, loneliness and vivid flashbacks.
But with the help of a therapist and meeting other survivors through Mukeshimana’s network, Nishimwe said she has learned to be more open. A couple of years ago she published a book detailing her experience during the genocide.
Mukeshimana’s work helping others continues to grow. In September, she has a weekend retreat planned for Rwandan genocide survivors after the owner of an inn Cooperstown, N.Y. donated the space.
And she hopes to secure enough resources to build a recovery center for others who are severely impacted by the effects of genocide.
“I got things to help me,” she said. “I’m paying forward what was given to me.”
To learn more about the Genocide Survivors Support Network visit the organization’s website.