‘Anyone Who Thinks It’s Easy to Get to the States as a Refugee Has No Idea’
Sandra Uwiringiyimana was 10 when her younger sister died in a massacre at a Burundi refugee camp. She recounts the nerve-wracking process of making it to safety in America.
When she was 10 years old, Sandra Uwiringiyimana said goodbye to her life. Her people had been forced from their homes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because they belonged to a minority tribe. When they made it to a refugee camp across the border in Burundi, rebels came to kill, carrying machetes, torches, guns—with one rebel holding a gun to Sandra’s head. As fate would have it, she got kicked to the ground in the chaos and managed to flee, but her six-year-old sister, Deborah, did not. Three years later, in 2007, Sandra came to America with her surviving family members through a United Nations resettlement program and faced a strange new world, starting with middle school in New York. Now 22, she describes her personal journey in a new memoir, How Dare the Sun Rise, coauthored by journalist and former Daily Beast editor Abigail Pesta. Here, in an excerpt from the book, she recalls the grueling interviews her family endured to get refugee status.
In 2006, my dad went to the first two interviews in Burundi alone.
After the interviews, he rounded us all up, including my reluctant mom, to travel to Burundi for the next round of interviews. Dad convinced Mom to go by telling her, “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll come back. But if it does work out, then our kids deserve a better life, don’t they? We should give them that opportunity. Why not try?”
At the UN office in Burundi, we sat in a crowded room with other families from the massacre, our first reunion. It felt good to see my people, but sad too. Everyone had lost loved ones, and no one looked quite the same as they had in our happier years in Uvira. It was like an eerie dream, seeing faces of ghosts from the past. People looked older, although not much time had passed.
The workers in the office were all white, and I saw an obese woman for the first time. I had never seen anyone so heavy. An American, she wore a blue shirt and black pants, and she spoke in a no-nonsense tone. She rattled off a list of questions with the help of a translator.
“How many people are in your family?”
“How old is everyone?”
“Tell me everyone’s birth dates.”
Then she asked, “How many people did you lose?”
This question seemed so matter-of-fact, so emotionless. We had lost our beloved Deborah. Her violent death had left a hole in our family that would never be repaired. We had lost cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends.
I understood that the woman was doing her job. She was resettling people from our massacre, and she needed to make sure the right people were being relocated. But she did not seem to understand that we were grieving. Our world had been turned upside down, and now we had to retell our horror story. I saw no empathy; she was recording facts. My mom was having a difficult time talking about Deborah as if she were a statistic. After that, Mom said she didn’t want to go to America.
My dad, however, said we should keep trying. We went in for another round of interviews, and this time, we were all separated in different rooms, with officials asking us questions individually. Since I was young, my mom was allowed to sit with me during my interview. I feared that if my answers didn’t match up precisely with those of my family, we would not get to go to America. I didn’t want to blow it for my family, although I still found it hard to believe that any of this was real. I didn’t know how to feel about moving to the States—I just knew that I needed to say consistent things and not mess up. But people don’t always recall the same details from traumatic situations. I had noticed this from the members of my own family: We were in the same massacre, but we sometimes had different recollections.
An official asked me a long list of questions.
“Where were you born?”
“Who are your parents?”
“How many siblings do you have? How old are they?”
“What are their names?”
“When did you go to the refugee camp in Gatumba?”
“Where were you the night of the attack? Who were you with?”
I was nervous as I answered, even though I knew the answers well.
My mom was nervous too, and she managed to mix up some of our birth dates. I was born on June 22, but in her anxiety-ridden state, Mom said it was June 1. Because of that, my birthday is now officially June 1.
During this time, most of us stayed with relatives or friends in Burundi so we would be available for the interviews. Mom and Princesse stayed in Rwanda, traveling back and forth for the interviews. Mom wanted to spend as little time in Burundi as possible. Sometimes the UN officials would pay the rest of us a surprise visit in Burundi and ask questions about our family, again checking that we were who we said we were.
“Where is everyone sleeping?” they would ask. “There don’t seem to be enough beds.”
We would explain that when you lose everything, you can’t afford much of anything. This went on for months. We waited, answered questions, waited some more. You really have to want to get to America to put yourself through the process. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to get to the States as a refugee has no idea.
Excerpted from How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta, HarperCollins (Katherine Tegen Books).