Sandrina Ntamwemezi (HBSc 2011)

Sandrina NtamwemeziNursing student

Sandrina Ntamwemezi was only five when the genocide ripped apart Rwanda. She has vague memories of the tragedy, mostly associated with feelings of panic.

But today after years of migration with her parents and her brothers to Zambia and the United States, she feels relief and a sense of belonging here. Canada is now home and she is no longer afraid.

“I own this identity,” she says about being Canadian. “I never felt that way in the States. I always felt like an outsider. And even in Zambia I always felt like an outsider. I was very clearly different. But the thing about Canada is there is no one idea of what a Canadian is. You can be anything and be Canadian. And I really love that about living here. I feel like I belonged.”

The 25-year-old York University nursing student recalled “being afraid” and looking out on the porch of her family home in Kigali and seeing a massive fire ball. That fire ball was the President of Rwanda’s burning plane which had been shot down, triggering the genocide.

“I remember this feeling of unease and all the adults are sitting around the house, being quiet. You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what.”

The next day the family went into hiding. Ntamwemezi, her sibling and her mother hid at an abandoned school; then with a family friend. Their father went elsewhere – to the home of a colonel in the army who was giving people refuge.

They all survived the genocide and almost immediately moved to Zambia where her father, a statistician, got a job with COMESA, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

But the family never felt safe in Zambia. A driver/bodyguard took them to school and picked them up, she said. She remembers a woman sitting on the family couch with an AK47. Her job: to protect them. Eventually, the family moved to Atlanta where her mom went back to school. Her parents had another child there. Eventually they all found a permanent home in Canada.

“I feel like I’ve never lived in a country where people had more good will towards each other; more love and I won’t say tolerance, I’ll say acceptance of people,” she explained.

She values her citizenship and smiles remembering the ceremony that she attended in 2011. “Becoming a citizen was amazing…I got really emotional when they said: ‘Congratulations, you’re a Canadian,’ because it has been a long time, a really long time coming. The one goal my father said he had for his children was to have another nationality because during the genocide we had nowhere to go.”

However, she believes Canadians who were born here may take their citizenship for granted, she said. “You don’t have to sit in front of a judge and be seen to say the words to be able to get this. They make sure you’re pledging your allegiance to the Crown and you’re not just play acting to get the certificate.”

Originally published in The Toronto Star, June 2014.

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