Pascaline Nsekera searched for peace during war. And now, from her new home in Canada, this refugee of Burundi’s long and violent conflict is passionate about helping others.
‘I lived every day not knowing if I would survive,’ Nsekera says about her life in the small east African country. ‘I was a student at the university and looking for a way out.’
When Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993 after only a hundred days in office, widespread ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi factions. Amid the chaos, Nsekera – who is of mixed heritage – joined the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC). This pacifist non-governmental agency, started by a minister in her home town of Getiga, sent Nsekera to South Africa in 1995 for conflict resolution training. While Nsekera studied peace tactics, the military seized control of her country.
‘I was stranded,’ she remembers. ‘They closed the borders and I couldn’t go home.’
So Nsekera went to Kenya instead, assisted by members of a United Nations refugee programme.
Through her contact with the UN, Nsekera learned about the World University Services of Canada (WUSC) and its scholarships to refugees – an opportunity she seized.
‘I am one of 1,000 lucky students who have been sponsored by WUSC,’ Nsekera enthuses. ‘It was fate.’
In 1997 Nsekera, then 25, travelled to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. After earning a degree in social work, she was hired as an administrator within the faculty.
‘I worked with the Africa Awareness Network; our goal was to promote an African Studies programme,’ Nsekera explains. ‘We shared African culture and studies with students who were very interested and open.’
Nsekera also helped refugee students adjust to campus life and became a board member of WUSC.
Five years later she went to work as a counsellor at La Boussole, Vancouver’s only francophone immigrant service agency. In her spare time, she helped establish the Burundi Community of British Columbia, a cultural, social and solidarity society. ‘Many who come to us are disoriented,’ Nsekera says of her French-speaking immigrant clients, several of whom come from former French colonies in Africa. ‘They can barely catch the bus. We help them get started and take them through the whole process. Integration can take a long time. They need to learn English. It’s difficult for them to find work in their own field. We have to be realistic; I try to be as knowledgeable and connected with the resources in the community as possible, so I can help them. I tell them “I can help you get this far.” And I tell them my story.’
Nsekera also gives refugee teenagers a chance to tell their own stories. ‘Illustrated Journey’ is a programme she initiated three years ago, teaching 20 immigrant and refugee youngsters – many of whom are orphans – how to draw comic book art.
The idea for the programme came to Nsekera when she was helping four refugee orphans from Rwanda. Their father was killed in Tutsi-Hutu clashes in 1994 and their mother died later from health complications, after they had escaped to Burundi. When one of the children needed medical attention, authorities at the hospital were able to assist, eventually leading to their move to Vancouver. Nsekera found foster home placements for three of the four siblings but the eldest daughter was too old to qualify.
‘She was on her own,’ Nsekera says. ‘I was her counsellor, but I was also like a big sister to her and we still keep in touch. I was inspired by her to create this programme. She was illiterate but needed a way to express herself without using language. She also needed a network of support.’
Participants of ‘Illustrated Journey’ gather once a week to learn the basics of drawing from professional artists. The result is a booklet of stories of how these teenagers came to Canada.
‘These young people don’t speak very much English. Comics are an accessible medium,’ Nsekera reveals. ‘This project gives them a bigger view of Canada. They have the support of others and a space to express their thoughts.’
Family roots may explain some of Nsekera’s desire for peaceful solutions. Her father was a Tutsi, the dominant minority in Burundi, and her mother a Hutu, the majority ethnic group. The struggle for control between the two groups (as also experienced in neighbouring Rwanda) began even before Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962. The eruption of full-scale war led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people; 48,000 others fled to Tanzania and another 140,000 were internally displaced.
‘It was a grinding 10-year war,’ Nsekera recalls. ‘Technically it is safe there now, but there has to be rebuilding before more people go back.’
Burundi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Landlocked and dependent on agricultural exports, including coffee, tea and sugar, the country’s post-war economy has required substantial international aid.
Illiteracy is also a major problem. Nsekera dreams of building a vocational college in her home town, giving local people practical skills.
While Nsekera’s immediate family survived the war, some members of her extended family were not so fortunate. Still, Nsekera is hopeful and believes ongoing economic and educational projects in Burundi will bring positive results.
‘My mother was always generous and shared with others. I learned not to be held back by circumstances. I have always been touched by what is missing. I’ve always wanted to make things better.’
Pascaline Nsekera talked with Janet Nicol