Refugee who found new life in Rochester shares inspirational message with Holley students
HOLLEY – Students at Holley Middle School/High School were inspired and challenged to be “an agent of change” Thursday afternoon by African-born author Sandra Uwiringiyimana who spoke about her book, How Dare the Sun Rise.
She writes about how she survived a massacre, immigrated to the United States, and overcame her trauma. The book was released May 16.
The 22-year old Uwiringiyimana was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and enjoyed what she described as “a happy childhood” and a “fulfilling life” in her conflict-stricken homeland, until the age of 10. That’s when rebel groups sought to kill her and members of her tribe because of their dialect and physical characteristics.
“We were made to feel subhuman, as if we didn’t deserve to live in the Congo,” Uwiringiyimana said.
Her family was forced to flee from their home, but were ambushed during the attempt. A man came up to the window of their vehicle and punched Uwiringiyimana’s six-year old sister in the face.
“It was then I discovered hate,” Uwiringiyimana said.
That memory is what lead her to write about her experiences, Uwiringiyimana said.
She encouraged students and members of the Holley community to become agents of change – to break the cycle of hatred between different people – as she is trying to do.
“We must see each other’s humanity first,” Uwiringiyimana said.
In 2004, the refugee camp where Uwiringiyimana’s family was living was attacked. Uwiringiyimana watched as her 6-year-old sister was killed and other members of her family were wounded.
Eventually, surviving family members were able to immigrate to America and settled in Rochester where Uwiringiyimana went to Mercy High School. She is now a student at Mercy College.
Uwiringiyimana told the students she understands their daily struggles, particularly after her experiences as a refugee.
“High School can be difficult, especially if you feel like an outsider,” she said.
Uwiringiyimana told the audience she has worked to turn tragedy into triumph and that they can do the same
“You are never too young to change the world,” Uwiringiyimana said. She encouraged students to start with the choices they make on a daily basis.
“You can’t make change globally if you don’t make change at home,” she said.
She encouraged them to take an interest in others and offer kindness and support.
“It’s not enough to be a nice person,” Uwiringiyimana said. “You have to express that.”
She said the friendships she made in Rochester and the encouragement of others helped her to see that it was important to tell her story
Uwiringiyimana is the first of her tribe to write a book about their experiences, and she now gives of her time as a human rights activist and spokesperson for refugees.
“I put a face to the issue,” she said. “When you hear the word refugee, picture me.”
Uwiringiyimana works to help girls in rural communities in the Congo. “A lot of kids don’t have the luxury of dreaming,” she said.
Through the Jimbere Fund (a non-profit organization which fights poverty in the Congo), Uwiringiyimana assists refugees and helps educate young women. She told students to become involved in local community organizations which help others.
“I live my life with my heart and mind opened to other people,” she said. “I want to be inclusive… it was (extremist) thinking that took (my sister’s) life. How could I embrace the notions that killed her?”
Following her speech, Uwiringiyimana signed copies of her book in the Holley Middle School/High School foyer.
Claudia Drechsel, a soon-to-graduate senior, has already read the book and was able to have it signed. She said she was thrilled with the book and with what Uwiringiyimana told the audience. Drechsel was especially moved by Uwiringiyimana’s courage.
“She said exactly the things that should be said, it was so personal. She touched on so many important issues,” Drechsel said. “It was really great.”
“Her story was inspiring to me,” eighth-grader Arrianna Ianello said. “I tend to take things for granted.” Uwiringiyimana taught her that good can come out of suffering and tragedy, Ianello said.
The author visit was made possible by the Holley Community Free Library and the Holley Rotary Club.
Library Director Sandra Shaw and Holley Central Superintendent of Schools Bob D’Angelo were both impressed by the talk and the response from students. Both said they know the visit will make a lasting impression on students and they hope to be able to offer similar programs in the future.