On February 25, Dr. Mireille Twayigira joined the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown for a discussion on ways to ensure that children forced to flee from crisis and conflict receive an education. Following the event, GJIA sat down with Dr. Twayigira to discuss her own experiences as a refugee who received an education from the Jesuit Refugee Service, and how she uses her education and story to help others today.
GJIA: As a country, what can the United States do to ensure that children who are forced to flee from conflict can receive an education?
MT: There’s a lot that can be done, but usually the first step is learning about the refugees themselves, because what you know about somebody will influence your actions. Right now, there are multiple organizations already working in this area, including the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), which have done the research and taken steps towards that end goal. One person cannot really change the world by themselves, so if somebody is interested in helping improve education for refugees, they could join one of these organizations; there are many like JRS which are doing a lot of good work, so it’s a matter of finding the right organization that you want to support. After that, of course, you also have to actually go to the exact places where refugees need it.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when you first arrived at the refugee camp in Malawi?
The biggest challenges were the general challenges of [refugee] camp life, because it’s not the comfortable life that you may imagine. It’s a life based on need, all the time. As a child especially, you want food, but you don’t have enough, or you see your friend wearing a decent dress, but maybe you can’t have it. You have to learn from a young age to be content and to use whatever you have at your disposal. That was the most challenging part for me, because as a kid you don’t know why you can’t have everything, so you cry, and it’s quite hard.
One striking aspect of your story is your journey fleeing Rwanda at a young age and traveling around Africa for several years in search of refuge. When you look back on that time in your life, what do you remember?
I don’t remember a lot from that time, only a few memories. When I look back, I just thank God that I lived through all that and am alive now. Of course, when I was going through that experience, I was just a kid, and when you’re a kid you live to see the next day and don’t really think much about it, so long as you’re surviving. But now, looking back, I thank God that I’m alive, and I realize that I am alive right now for a reason.
You received an education from the Jesuit Refugee Services when you were at Dzaleka Camp in Malawi, and still became one of the best ten students in country. How did you remain focused and successful in school even in the midst of a crisis?
My answer to this applies not just to me, but also for the other kids at the camp, most of whom were my classmates. We were going through a lot in our lives, but we really saw education as our only hope, our only way out, so we had to work hard in order to succeed. Several of us went to university because we had the chance and saw education as our only way out to the camp. As I grew older - for example, when I was in China – I grew in my faith, and I realized that I had a purpose in life, not just for myself but also for other people around me. That really pushed me to not give up and continue putting effort in to my education.
What do you think makes the JRS different from other programs and camps in their education services?
One thing I would highlight which they do differently is providing psychosocial support. Refugees go through a lot of things in their lives, so they need more than just an opportunity to go to school, because you can still go to school but might still be traumatized by their experiences. The JRS offers social support, accompanying the refugees and providing other services as well.
Other than providing education, what are other things that governments, institutions, or individuals can do to help refugees?
As I mentioned before, there’s a lot already being done. As I always highlight, it’s not that we should focus on only education, it’s just that all of the things people do for refugees have to work together. For example, refugees still need support to find work, because it’s not only kids - there are also older people who come from their countries and already have some skills. Not every country allows refugees to be able to work in their national workforce, so if policies are made for those adults to be allowed to use their skills, not only will they themselves benefit, so will the country, because there will be more pilots, doctors, and other people already skilled and ready to work. If you can put those skills to good use in addition to education, that will really benefit not just the refugees, but everybody involved.
The title of your talk today was “Full of Hope.” What has made you stay hopeful throughout your experiences, and what hopes do you have for the future?
I was hopeful because I realized that my story was not just tragic, but it was also something that I could share with others. There was a light at the end of my journey, and it is that light that I can share with others, who can learn from my experiences and know that they can also survive. I really hope that there will be more refugees telling their stories, showing how education, support, and love have transformed their lives, because that is what happened to me, and I hope others see and learn from that.
Dr. Mireille Twayigara is a former refugee from Rwanda who currently serves as the Refugee Education Advocate for the Jesuit Refugee Service. Forced to flee from conflict in Rwanda when her father was killed during the 1994 genocide, Dr. Twayigara spent the next six years of her life traveling on foot between countries in Africa, a journey in which she lost her sister, mother, and grandmother to illness before arriving with her grandfather at Dzaleka camp in Malawi in 2000. In Dzaleka, she became a student in one of the Jesuit Refugee Service’s education programs, and eventually graduated as one of the top three female students in the country. With the assistance of JRS and the Malawian and Chinese governments, she began her medical studies in China, and graduated as a medical doctor in 2016. She then returned to Malawi, where she now practices as a medical doctor in a hospital, in addition to her advocacy work for JRS.