Tuesday 3 May 2011

Students help Rwandan genocide survivor

The Rwandan genocide still slashes through the lives of its survivors, including Concordia student Beatha Kayitesi (BA ’11). But community support can bring opportunities for great healing.

Kayitesi survived the genocide and other atrocities that killed 800,000 Tutsi and pro-peace Hutu in approximately 100 days in mid-1994. This year, she was a student in Madeleine Mcbrearty’s Health Promotion class (AHSC 460) in the Applied Human Sciences program. Kayitesi’s mother raised over 20 community orphans, people Kayitesi considers brothers and sisters. Kayitesi ended up coming to Canada via refugee camps in Kenya and Sudan. “Being one of the survivors, I have a big responsibility to help those who made it but were not as lucky as me.”

But she lives, at times, with feelings of shame coupled with survivor guilt. Last year, her sister Ernestine appealed for help Kayitesi was in no position to provide. “She married the wrong guy, someone who had killed over 2,000 Tutsis. Nobody knew this,” says Kayitesi. He killed Ernestine, and then himself. “They left a few kids behind.”

So when her mother called recently, begging for help for another sister, Vivian, also married but “still hungry and at the end of her rope,” Kayitesi knew the best solution would be to get her sister back in school. But who could afford the $500 yearly fee? Enter the students of her Health Promotion class.

AHSC 460 is “about the seven dimensions of health: physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social, environmental and occupational,” Mcbrearty says. Students are asked to change two dimensions of their own health, working on issues as diverse as cigarettes, drugs, drinking, debt loads or savings, composting, or focusing on anger or self-esteem issues. It’s a full year course, “very experiential. Learning to change the world by changing yourself is a big component of this course.”

During the second-to-last class, Kayitesi performed a Rwandan dance “she did it to make herself feel better,” says a classmate, Rachel Renaud (BA ’11). Everyone was touched to see her so transformed. Kayitesi knew that AHSC 460 students were supposed to share what was going on in their lives, so she finally told classmate Matthew Riggs about her sister’s situation. “When I told Matthew my feelings, that I would just like to help one person, Matthew told me I deserved to be happy. I’ve never been a really happy person, the kind who goes to dances and parties.”

Riggs asked his classmates to each bring $15 for Kayitesi’s sister. “I felt they would think I was asking for myself,” Kayitesi says. Instead, Renaud, Executive Director of the Renaud family’s Roasters Foundation and all their philanthropic work, arranged for matching funds. Another student, Kelly Wilkinson, works with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and got help from her co-workers there.

At the final class, Kayitesi invited dancers and drummers in Rwandan costume to perform again, this time as a thank you. “We raised $1,400 with more coming in, enough to start an official program with the Foundation,” Renaud says. And enough to keep Kayitesi’s sister in school for three years.

The experience was “wonderful, amazing. I didn’t know they would be there to help me,” Kayitesi says. “I’ve slept well since.”

Originally published in the Concordia Journal.

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