Mass killings and political unrest, persecution by dictators. Jeanne Nizigiyimana was born and raised in Burundi, a small, landlocked country in East Africa that witnessed unspeakable violence when a decade of ethnic-based war shattered countless lives.
After receiving asylum to reside in the United States, Nizigiyimana and her young family began anew in Arizona, facing the challenge of adopting a brand new culture and language. Nizigiyimana, program manager for the Refugee Women’s Health Clinic in Phoenix, talks about perseverance, resilience and a tireless calling to help other refugee women and their families.
Vicki: Like your father before he was killed, you held a position with the government. But then the outbreaks of violence in Burundi made raising a family there very dangerous.
Jeanne: People feel that at a certain moment they have to fight for their rights, and in a country where democracy is not well implemented, the dictators don’t want to understand that. What follows is mass killing for those who are opposing the government. You are persecuted.
Vicki: Your daughter Shirley was just a toddler and you were expecting your son Ralph when chaos and unimaginable brutality began. How did you manage to survive?
Jeanne: You couldn’t sleep or stay in the same place. We kept on hiding and running. One night we got to this edge of this mountain. Shirley needed rest. There was no other choice [but] to sit down and maybe surrender our lives to God. There were bullets. We had to be jumping over dead bodies. She would be crying, saying, “Mom I have thorns! In my feet!” It wasn’t thorns. It was because she was so tired of walking, walking, walking, and her feet started burning.
Vicki: What do you say to a young child in that kind of situation?
Jeanne: I remember singing to Shirley in these words, “Strong, my daughter, strong my daughter.” And she will repeat after me, “Strong my mom, strong my mom.” When we got here to America and we saw that we had to start all over and that we had to walk to the bus station, things like that—it was our way to encourage each other. [My children] still remember that song.
Vicki: Ultimately, you escaped from Burundi, and lived in Burkina Faso in West Africa for four years before you were granted asylum to live in the United States. What were some of the challenges of life in Arizona?
Jeanne: It was difficult to start all over, knowing that we were educated as we were and then finding out that we had to be very humble and begin with very simple jobs. Our English at the time was very limited. Another challenge was how we would navigate the whole system and know where to go, how to take the bus. So, it was hard in the beginning, but with time we got adjusted.
Vicki: You have a master’s degree in social work, speak several languages and work to help refugee women, who may be scarred physically and psychologically, to get routine medical care. How do you bridge the cultural divide?
Jeanne: We make sure that we are treating them with respect, so they can trust us. We have to be compassionate. We have to welcome them with dignity. With my social work background and skills, I’m able to build an environment where they know we have the resources they need. We are culturally competent and diversity is something we embrace as a first priority.
Vicki: Why should people care about what happens to these women and their families?
Jeanne: People must care because they are already part of this community. We must use our resources to help them reshape their lives so they can be productive citizens. We can help with preventative health. We can say, “You know, back home, people will die of this. But here, doctors can help figure out what it is and they can give you a cure and you are able to have a better life and a healthy life.”
Vicki: What do you, personally, gain from helping these women?
Jeanne: Every day of the clinic I go home very happy. I don’t take anything for granted. My position here is meant to be. When my patients are happy, I’m happy. It’s about service for them, not about me. I’ve received a lot of blessings in my life. I already have enough, thank you.
Vicki Louk Balint is a multimedia journalist for RAISING ARIZONA KIDS.