Tortured Burundi teacher finds peace in Canada

After being tortured for half a year back in Burundi, Jean-Claude finally found safety in Canada. Now he is determined to help others in need.

Jean-Claude Ndereyahayo was determined to make a life for himself in Toronto.
© UNHCR/Annie Sakkab

For half a year, school teacher Jean-Claude Ndereyahayo was tortured in a prison in Burundi. When he finally found refuge in Canada in 2007, all he landed with was an extra shirt and pair of trousers purchased from an airport shop.

“I began to wonder, what will my life be?” he says. “Because at the beginning, it was hard. I was in a shelter.”

Undeterred by the daunting obstacles and towering buildings of Toronto, Jean-Claude threw himself into school to distract from the loneliness of his new surroundings. His perseverance paid off – he soon found a job as a community service worker, helping those in need in the community.

Last year, he anxiously clutched a bouquet of flowers at the same airport he had arrived at nine years earlier, waiting for his wife, Desiree, to step through the doors.

“You can't imagine…” he says, trailing off, gazing at her in the modest apartment they share today. To his left, the flowers are still in a vase – dried out, but forever a reminder of the challenges and joys of their new home.

“When you can feed your family, when you can just help friends, when you can just contribute to the community, it means you are a free person,” he says. “Now I have the vision to make my life the fullest possible.”

Then and Now is a series of stories profiling refugees who have come to Canada over the years, in search of safety, stability and a chance at a better life. Starting from 1956, when Canada accepted its first major intake of refugees, the project uses archived images and family photos to tell the stories of refugees from Hungary, Viet Nam, Uganda, Somalia, Colombia, Cambodia, Burundi and El Salvador.