“I thought to myself, I think I just witnessed my mother being killed.”
One could hear pin drop after this and several other striking, disturbing, and powerful statements made by New York-based, Congolese-American author and activist Sandra Uwiringiyimana last night at an event at Zion Lutheran Church in Oshkosh.
She also exuded warmth and a good sense of humor despite the obvious pain she was there in part to express, along with the hope that stems from unwavering support from family and mentorship from key people who helped open doors.
Brought to the area by the Oshkosh Area School District (OASD) and several additional partners on the strength of her book, How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, Ms. Uwiringiyimana is spending four days here, talking to school children, having conversations with local residents with refugee background (RRBs), and doing more formal keynote presentations.
Last night’s event included some of all of the above. John Hobbins, a Pastor at Zion and Multicultural Outreach Coordinator for OASD, hosted the event, along with members of the church, which offers services in multiple languages that cater to local RRBs who have resettled here in recent years from Ms. Uwringiyimana’s homeland of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, and a variety of other countries of origin. Starting with resettlement of Hmong people in the mid-1970s, the Oshkosh area has consistently received the second-most RRBs in Wisconsin, behind only Milwaukee, despite being the state’s ninth-largest city. As the youthful Ms. Uwiringiyimana noted, we have some unique things going on here.
The event at Zion began with a lively dinner of a variety of ethnic foods prepared by local families, in a room packed with people from all over the world, along with Oshkosh natives, UWO students, and more — a manifestation and celebration of the vibrant diversity that can fly a bit under the radar in this area.
The gathering then shifted to the sanctuary, where Ms. Uwiringiyimana, who fled a massacre of her ethnic group and was resettled to Rochester, New York, as a youth, held a conversation with a fellow genocide survivor in both the Kinyarwanda language and English. On her sixth presentation of the day, Ms. Uwiringiyimana sat next to Specioza Ndagire, a local RRB originally from Rwanda, talk-show style. She asked Ms. Ndagire to share some of her own story, which was interspersed with her own. Despite poignantly sharing gruesome details of the horror she and her family dealt with before being resettled, Ms. Ndagire noted that life here has largely lived up to her preconceived notions about America, as some sort of heaven on earth. Stressing that it is all relative, she said that because her main concern is living in peace, this area certainly fits the bill.
Ms. Uwiringiyimana had a bit different perspective, which you can learn more about through reading her book, or better yet, coming to her keynote presentation tonight on the UWO campus (see flyer) or tomorrow night (Thursday, March 5) at Fox Valley Technical College, Appleton Commons area, from 6:30-8pm.
She had a second conversation, with another Pastor John (Semahoro), a Congolese RRB who moved to Appleton in July after spending thirteen years in a refugee camp. While four of his children were born there, he agreed with the other speakers that life in a refugee camp is something so horrible that you would never wish it on anyone. “I never felt poor until we lived there,” said Ms. Uwiringiyimana.
To conclude the evening, two groups of Congolese dancers — one female and the other male — from Oshkosh North High School performed, which got Ms. Uwiringiyimana clapping and singing along, and caused others in the audience to get up and joyfully dance along and ululate exuberantly. Being able to gather, to see their young people perform, have fellow RRBs be able to share their stories, and to have such a striking and dynamic daughter of their homeland as the featured speaker was clearly special to the African members of the audience, and quite moving to everyone. Even my thirteen-year old daughter (a native of the African continent as well, and therefore a member of Ms. Uwiringiyimana’s community, who she thanked at the outset) sat at rapt attention and waited around to get a signature in our copy of the book.
Learn more about Ms. Uwiringiyimana here.