Rwandan refugee makes Glendon his scholastic home

He left everything behind, including his passport, when he boarded a bus in his home town in the Butare district of Central Rwanda, never dreaming he would one day land at York’s Glendon campus.

Jean Paul Niyombaza was a law student, the son of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father. Both his parents were killed during the genocide which started in 1994, first his mother because she was a Tutsi and later his father because he was a Hutu. When a close friend warned him in 2002 that the same people who killed his father were looking for him, Niyombaza got on that bus planning to go as far away from Rwanda as possible, and hoping to reach South Africa.

His money only got him as far as Malawi, a little more than halfway to his original destination. With his French and English language skills, he was able to land a job as interpreter for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). He also speaks Kinyarwanda – his mother tongue – and three other African languages, Swahili, Shona and Kichewa.

"The Jesuit Refugee Services in Malawi helped me a great deal," says Niyombaza. "They selected those young refugees whom they considered able to succeed in their studies and in settling into a new country. I was lucky enough to be chosen among them."

Left: Jean Paul Niyombaza

That organization contacted the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), a Canadian international development agency with a vast network of individuals and post-secondary institutions. Its mission is to foster human development and global understanding through education and training. Niyombaza was asked to compile a dossier describing his background and education, which was sent to WUSC’s Canadian headquarters.

This is where the Glendon connection comes in. Professor Michael Barutciski, Chair of Glendon’s Multidisciplinary Studies Department, is a specialist in diplomacy, international law and refugee studies. Barutciski helped establish a WUSC student refugee program at Glendon that sponsors francophone refugees. In 2005, he accompanied a small group of Glendon students to Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania where they spent time with locals and visited UN organizations such as UNHCR, the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as well as humanitarian non-governmental organizations, an orphanage and a refugee camp.

Professor Louise Lewin, associate principal of student affairs at Glendon, joined Glendon’s WUSC program. Under the guidance of Lewin and Barutciski, WUSC members chose to sponsor Niyombaza.

"I arrived on the 14th of August 2006 at Toronto’s airport. It had been a bewildering journey. At the transfer point in Germany, I was boarded on a flight that was hours earlier than originally planned," Niyombaza said. "This meant that no one was waiting for me at Pearson, since I arrived three hours earlier than originally scheduled. My baggage, which contained all my belongings, was lost – never to be recovered."

John Wires and Tammy Maclean, two students from Glendon’s WUSC group, arrived at the airport on schedule armed with the documents of Niyombaza’s new identity: his landing card, social insurance number and OHIP card.

"It was August and all the Canadians around me were wearing shorts and t-shirts and complaining about the heat, while I was wearing a sweater and feeling cold all the time," Niyombaza said.

It took some time for his body to adjust.

Once back at Glendon, WUSC provided Niyombaza with room and board in residence for the duration of the academic year and covered his school fees. He started classes in political science in September 2006, just a few weeks after his arrival.

Now in his second year of living in Canada, Niyombaza is relaxed and ready to talk about his experiences. He is currently taking third-year courses with plans to become a lawyer.

"In Africa, it is the parents who choose their children’s future occupation. My father thought that law would be the best profession for me," Niyombaza said. "Our high schools are different from the Canadian ones, because they are streamed in specialized fields right from the start, rather than providing a general education. I had already taken legal courses at that level and I agreed with my father – the law was a good choice for me."

Niyombaza is secure enough in his Canadian existence to have moved out of residence to a place of his own. While going to school, he holds down two jobs to support himself – as a teaching assistant at the Toronto French School and as a part-time employee of Glendon’s athletic centre, Proctor Field House.

"I like people and I have made many friends," Niyombaza said. "People at Glendon have been very helpful to me. I feel comfortable in Toronto’s multicultural society and I am happy that I don’t have to be afraid any more."

Old fears, however, are hard to overcome. When he had to go to Pearson International Airport to meet someone, he explored the airport in advance and was amazed that people went wherever they wanted and nobody asked for identification. In Rwanda, airports are among the most dangerous and secretive places. Wherever you go in Rwanda you need to have your ID card with you and be ready to justify why you are there. The memories of the terrible things he has witnessed will take some time to put to rest, but he is well on his way and grateful to Canada for having accepted him.

With Niyombaza’s help the Glendon WUSC group has sponsored another refugee, a young Rwandan mathematician whom Niyombaza knew in Malawi. Gilbert Twagirumukiza arrived on Aug. 15, 2007, and is settling into his studies at Glendon and his new life in Canada.

For more information about WUSC at York, click here.

Story submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.