Pathway to Peace
Pacifique Niyonzima lost most of his family during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Now he is earning a graduate degree in higher education administration at Kent State so he can give back to his native country.
By Pacifique Niyonzima as told to Jan Senn
April 2018 marked the 24th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide—the mass slaughter of the Tutsi tribe by members of the Hutu majority government, who recruited and pressured Hutu civilians to kill their Tutsi neighbors and destroy or steal their property.
An estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans were killed during 100 days between April and July 1994, which left the country reeling.
Pacifique Niyonzima was the youngest member of his Tutsi family to survive. We asked him to tell us about his life in the aftermath of the tragedy—and the hope he has for his country’s future.
My name is Pacifique Niyonzima. Pacifique is a French name meaning “peacemaker,” and Niyonzima means “God is almighty” in Kinyarwanda, my native language.
I was born and grew up in Rwanda, a small country located in Central Africa. You could fit Rwanda four times into Ohio. It’s tiny, but beautiful. The countryside is dotted with a mixture of mountains, volcanoes, and hillocks.
During the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, I was two or three years old, born into the Tutsi tribe. Not every Hutu got involved in the killing. A Hutu family who were friends of my parents hid me.
When I was about six, I went to the orphanage started by Fr. Jean Bosco Gakirage for orphans of the genocide. He raised us as his kids. I went away to boarding school during high school, and during the holidays I came back to the orphanage.
After the genocide, the new government of Rwanda tried to bring people together. In school, they taught us the history of what happened in our country and educated us about peace.
I was able to interact with another young man from the Hutu tribe that murdered my family. They taught me that we are all together; I cannot blame somebody because his family murdered my family. I cannot put the blame on this young man.
During a history class, we learned that the first person who walked on the moon was from America. I wondered, Where is America? How can you send someone to the moon?
After I was done in high school, I got a government scholarship to go to college in Rwanda. Fr. Jean was in America visiting a church, and one family there told him, “We can help you to raise one kid.”
He came back to Rwanda and told me, “There is a family in America who can help you as their kid. You can stay with them and go to school there. You’ve got to make a choice. Stay and go to college in Rwanda or go to the United States, start again in high school to learn English, and go to college there.” I said, “Well, I’m going to the United States.”
My new family, Jill and Mike Burke, and I met for the first time at the Cleveland Airport in 2011. I didn’t know much English, so sometimes we communicated by drawing images. My mom would write “closet” on a sticky note and put it on a closet. She put sticky notes everywhere in the house. They had friends come over to teach me English and help me with math.
I came here on a F1 visa; my parents didn’t officially adopt me, but I’m like their child. They support me and care for me. Without my family, I would not be the person I am today. It’s such a wonderful privilege, and I’m so thankful.
After three years, they told me, “You brought joy to our family, so we are going to adopt a kid from Africa.” Now I have a brother, Fandira Murinzi, so my family is growing.
I went to Walsh Jesuit High School for one year and a half. The kids and everyone there made me feel welcome. The hardest part was learning the language.
One of the girls asked me to go to Homecoming. I didn’t know what that was, so I went home and asked my dad, “What is coming home?” He was confused, and we kept talking. I said, “Somebody asked me to coming home with her, what is that?” He said, “Oh, you mean Homecoming!”
After high school, I went to Walsh University for college. With all I’ve been given, I want to do something to give back and help people. I studied nursing, but every time I went to the simulation room, dealing with the fake bodies, I started shaking. So I changed to environmental science, thinking maybe I could help people get clean water. But when we would go to the forest, I thought, this is not for me. I talked to my adviser and my family, and I chose to study professional education and international relations for my major.
Using education as a tool to bring peace, Rwanda is teaching young people the truth about its history.
I was part of a global scholar program offered at Walsh University. We traveled to Africa, Geneva and Italy in the summer of 2015, learning about global issues and how we could be part of the solution. It was a wonderful experience.
Reflecting on opportunities I was given and people who had an impact on my life, I started thinking about a path that would open doors and give me an opportunity to follow my passion. Choosing to study higher education administration at Kent State University was the best decision I made.
I enjoy the environment at KSU that welcomes everybody. Working as an assistant hall director in the Honors College provides me an opportunity to grow in my field. My favorite thing is interacting with students. I share my Rwandan culture with them, and they help me learn about American culture. I am beyond fortunate to be exposed to both cultures!
My first visit to Rwanda after five years, I was invited to speak at a university about the differences between American and Rwandan education systems.
During my visit, I could not imagine how my home country was transformed into the wonderful and peaceful place it is now, after going through such a tragic period. Rwandans are incredibly friendly and hospitable. They have come together to reconcile and rebuild their nation.
Using education as a tool to bring peace, Rwanda is teaching young people the truth about its history to make sure that what happened will never happen again. Most of the people who take part in the annual Walk to Remember to commemorate the Rwandan genocide are young, so there is hope for my country.
Rwanda is one of the fastest growing countries in Africa. After the genocide, the government promoted educating young girls. Now Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in government in the world. If you educate women, you educate the community.
This summer, I will be interning with the vice chancellor at the University of Rwanda. I want to see how higher education works there compared with America. I am so thankful to Kent State for helping me, especially Dr. Stephen Thomas, Dr. Martha Merrill and Dr. Beth Thomas in the College of Education, Health and Human Services.
I feel like I have two homes, Rwanda and the United States. I hope to one day take American students to Rwanda so they can learn about the culture and bring Rwandan students to America for an exchange. That way I can do something to benefit both my homes.
Pacifique Niyonzima: Discovering purpose