Dr. Mireille Twayigira Speaks at Lincoln Center

Former Rwandan Refugee Has Overcome Numerous Obstacles

By Jack Archambault

By the time she was 9 years old, Mireille Twayigira had been walking for two-thirds of her life. 6 years, 4,600 kilometers – the distance from New York to Los Angeles. It is a feat made even more impressive when one considers she did not have shoes for most of it.

“We had walked for long, we had sores on our feet,” Dr. Twayigira said. “I was very malnourished.”

This was just part of the larger story that Dr. Twayigira relayed to a capacity crowd at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus on February 28, discussing her life as a refugee and how education allowed her to achieve a better life.

The event was put on by the Fordham Institute for International and Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA), in partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

After fleeing from genocide in Rwanda in 1994, she, along with her mother, grandparents, and sister, spent the next decade living in a series of refugee camps. It was a journey that took them from Rwanda, through the Congo, to Zambia, and finally to Malawi. When 9-year-old Mireille arrived in Malawi in September 2000, only she and her grandfather were still alive.

It was in Malawi that Mireille attended a school run by JRS and she and her classmates immediately fell in love with learning. “We saw school as the only hope,” Dr. Twayigira said. “It was the key to a better future.”

Mireille and her classmates began each day by irrigating the crops outside the school, a necessary task in order to ensure that they had enough to eat. Nobody was more grateful for the rations they received in the refugee camp than Mireille, who describes the food she ate before arriving in Malawi as “things you could never had eaten.” Take nsima, a corn biscuit best known for sprouting thick tufts of mold. Or perhaps turn to the time Mireille, desperate for food, ate a snake she found in a bush.

Mireille graduated from the JRS school in 2009 and received a scholarship to study medicine in China … and in Chinese. “We were never told we were going to do our studies in Mandarin. We all thought we were going to learn Mandarin just to get around.”

They thought it would be impossible.

By now, of course, it should not come as any surprise that Mireille succeeded. After graduating from medical school at China’s Hebei University in 2016, Mireille became Dr. Twayigira. Now, she aspires to work in mental health, and speaks to children in Malawi and around the world to share her story and inspire others.

“There is potential in every young refugee you hear about,” Dr. Twayigira said. It is realizing this potential that makes the work she and JRS do so important.

“It is important, especially with our current administration so unreceptive of refugees,” said Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan S.J., Director of Mission for JRS. “That’s why events like this one are so necessary.”

The JRS was founded by Pedro Arrupe S.J. in 1980 and is dedicated to helping refugees, forcibly displaced persons, and asylum seekers. Dr. Twayigira’s talk was the first event they have done in partnership with IIHA at Fordham.

Dr. Twayigira ended her talk by urging the audience to support organizations like JRS who work to educate refugees. “Education give refugees self-reliance and the ability to not only depend on aid.”

It also gives refugees a sense of purpose, which Dr. Twayigira can attest to. “I know I have a place to go,” she said in her closing remarks, “so I can’t allow anything to pull me back.”

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