She remembers seeing sparks—bright blasts of gunfire that hit her mother and her 6-year-old sister. The night was Aug. 13, 2004, and a young girl named Sandra Uwiringiy’imana was in the middle of a massacre in Africa. There were men with machetes and guns, slashing throats and burning bodies. Ten-year-old Sandra first fainted, then ran, only to find herself with a gun pointed at her own head. In that moment, she remembers thinking, “Goodbye, life.”
Today Sandra is a high-school junior in Rochester, N.Y. She hangs out at the mall and goes to the movies with her friends. She moved to the U.S. with her family in 2007, with the help of a United Nations refugee program. When she first told her friends her story, they didn’t believe her. “They were like, 'No way,'” she says. “But I can understand this. It’s hard to picture that people can be so cruel.”
Sandra grew up in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of seven siblings, she remembers living in a modest home and studying hard at school but facing discrimination against her ethnic group, the Banyamulenge, which had deep roots in the area—but across the border in nearby Rwanda. “Some people didn’t view us as truly Congolese,” she says. “Our noses were thinner.” Her father advised her to ignore slurs from other students.