Burundi Minister Who Escaped Genocide Reflects on Current Refugee Crisis

Story by Thea Skinner, Volunteer, Denver, Colorado

Burundi has gone through three major waves of political upheaval in the past half-century that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their homeland. The first upheaval occurred in 1972, the second in 1994; the third is happening today as crisis once again strikes the country.

Following both the 1972 and 1994 genocides, some refugees of Burundi made their way to the United States to resettle. Pastor Joseph Nsabimbona, a former Burundi refugee and genocide survivor of the 1990s, spoke about that journey at “Nothing But Weeping: Burundi on the Brink, Again,” an American Red Cross Lunch and Learn hosted at the Denver, Colorado office.

Pastor Joseph Nsabimbona

Pastor Joseph Nsabimbona

“My heart is heavy, grieving over what is happening in Burundi,” he said reflecting on the present political crisis.

The crisis has displaced more than 150,000 people from Burundi into neighboring countries, and refugees have reached as far as Zambia.

Since April 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has provided aid including two vehicles and fuel, 130 first aid kits, communication radio support, three first aid mobile response teams, nine first aid posts staffed with more than 100 volunteers. Representatives of the ICRC have also visited those arrested to ensure humane treatment in line with international standards.

Pastor Nsabimbona is founder and president of A La Source Refugee Ministry in Aurora, a nonprofit aiding refugees through their journey. In March 2015, he planted The Sojourners Christ's Church with the purpose of ministering and helping the refugees, immigrants, and the community connect in unity to transform their hearts.

“We know it is a process, so we walk alongside refugees tutoring the adults, mentoring the youth, helping them in transition. We journey with them; it is our calling,” he said.

The similarities of the 1972, 1994, and present Burundi crisis are that all have political roots. All those political crises resulted in violence, killings of unarmed people. The challenges and sacrifices refugees face are monumental.

“Overnight, you lose all that you had, your life, your family, you go through trauma, you face the challenges that come with trying to settle into a new country. As a refugee, being relocated does not guarantee a better life,” Pastor Nsabimbona said.

The challenges refugees face don’t end when they resettle to safety, and part of Pastor Nsabimbona’s work is helping refugees as they continue on their journey. Children, women and the elderly often suffer the most. In fact, the ICRC reports that 60 percent of the refugees in the Nyagurusu camp in Tanzania are children.

 “Some kids were born in refugee camps. We teach on the topic of identity helping them understand that we are not defined by what we went through. It is only a circumstance of condition,” he said. “When in a camp you are on the move, but when you are relocated that is when you start morning.”

Refugees often arrive in their new host countries with nothing.

“A refugee has to be resilient and press on. In New York City, I survived on a dollar a day, squatting in the East Village. We had no heater, it was very difficult - another kind of war - A fight to survive in America,” Nsabimbona said.

In addition to facing the challenges of culture shock, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and economic challenges, many refugees have also been separated from their support systems: their families.

The Red Cross assists working to reconnect families through the Restoring Family Links program. Pastor Nsabimbona personally experienced family reunification after six years of separation that included visits to Canada and interviews at embassies and consulates that exhausted his pay checks.

Reconnecting families can be extremely challenging, but success is possible. Recently, two parents living in the Nyagurusu refugee camp – a camp of more than 50,000 refugees –were reunited with their children in a neighboring city with help from the ICRC.

For more information about the reconnecting families work of the Red Cross, please visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.

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