The Seed of Hope: A Congolese refugee’s efforts to write his autobiography captures the horrors of his past and the hope for a brighter future as a recent university graduate
“You don’t know what a small gesture means to a refugee. Even just a smile can mean so much.”
Dogon Nshimiyimana is a very focused and determined young refugee. Just five months ago, Dogon graduated with Honours from the College of Education at the University of Rwanda, on a full scholarship from the Jesuit Refugee Service for exceptional refugee students. Dogon is also the Chairperson of the Congolese Vision Family – a Congolese refugee students association which aims at improving self-reliance and education among members of his community. He is a volunteer at Portals Project office in Kigali, a network that connects people around the world on life-size screens to exchange and discuss innovative ideas. And now, at only 25 years old, Dogon hopes to complete his autobiography, entitled “The Seed of Hope”, to capture his struggles of fleeing his home, witnessing the murder of his family as a child, and overcoming the stigma of being a refugee through hard work to obtain his university degree.
“You don’t know what a small gesture means to a refugee.
Even just a smile can mean so much.”
His story, like thousands of refugees in Rwanda, begins in his home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Dogon’s fondest memory is of the time his family spent at the Mizero River, meaning ‘Hope’, in his home village of Gasheberi. “What I can remember from Gasheberi is the Mizero River around which we kept our cattle and at night people would gatherer to dance and sing traditional songs. The day we left our home, we cried. But we knew we could not stay in the DRC anymore. At that time I thought we would return home one day. I didn’t expect my life to take this turn,” recalls Dogon.
Dogon’s mother, father, two sisters and two brothers made the brave decision to flee to Rwanda to escape the escalating violence in the DRC. Sadly, the militia followed the refugees to Rwanda’s Mudende camp and killed hundreds of defenseless people, including Dogon’s entire family. Dogon was only seven years old when he witnessed the murdered of his family in the 1997 Mudende massacre by Interahamwe militia. Dogon’s uncle was able to grab the child and escape the massacre. From then on, the uncle and his family have been taking care of Dogon in Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda’s Northern Province.
After losing his entire family, Dogon lived in what he calls a purgatory state for some years. “I could see my life getting worse day by day. How can such a little boy live after such painful atrocities? What despaired me a lot is that I could not do anything to return to my home village and find the rest of my family,” he says.
To escape his trauma, Dogon prioritized his education to get lost in his studies. Surrounded by narrow classrooms made of mud and plastic roofing, Dogon appreciated the opportunities of continuing his education offered by UNHCR in Gihembe camp’s primary school. However, attending school wasn’t always easy. Dogon particularly recalls the challenges of trying to accomplish his senior six national examinations due to the trials of being a refugee. “When I was coming home from school, I was so hungry but there was no food. Mum was crying that her children are starving, and I felt that my dreams of finishing school could well be over,” he said. “I thought I can’t stay here anymore without being able to help my family.”
After pulling through to complete his primary and secondary studies, Dogon made the decision to move to Kigali in pursuit of more opportunities and to complete his university studies. Although he is continuing the next chapter of his life outside of the camp, Dogon is thankful to UNHCR for all that they have done. “I am grateful to UNHCR, they’ve helped me a lot. They had given us a place to stay and have provided me with advice throughout my life. I don’t know where I would have ended up without their help.”
Since living in Kigali, Dogon continues to praise Rwanda for showing exceptional respect to all people, including refugees. “I love Rwanda,” he says. “I feel like a human being here. I am treated with dignity and respect regardless of my nationality or refugee status. I can attend workshops and seminars and share my ideas.”
Dogon’s message to the Rwandan public: “Thank you for your generosity, safety and respect and values you share with refugees. Thank you for sharing with us shelter, food, time, thoughts and smiles. You don’t know what a small gesture means to a refugee,” he adds. “Even just a smile can mean so much.”
Dogon’s autobiography will highlight some of his ambitions including establishing a school which will provide education to vulnerable children. Dogon’s favorite quote is Nelson Mandela’s conviction that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” because education has changed Dogon’s world for the better.