It was in the retelling of Françoise’s story that the words got stuck in my throat. More than a day after she’d told me of her journey, I found myself at a blockage. I think it was the broken glass bottle. It wedged in my throat and I couldn’t physically say it, as though the articulating of it finally made it real and pass through me too. Yet Françoise is not broken, she’s one of the most vibrant, uplifting women I’ve ever met. Despite everything she has been through she gives back on every level. In an insta-world of digestible soundbites, how do you find the words to describe being violently penetrated with a glass bottle while 6 months pregnant; losing the baby, your fertility, your home, and maybe your mind?
I’m on mission with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Uganda, home to over 1.2 million refugees and with a generous open border policy that is hailed as an example the rest of the world could learn from.
Today I’m en route to Nakivale Settlement, a vast area of land, 50 kilometres from end to end in the South Western Isingiro district of Uganda. Nakivale hosts 109,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Burundi.
Looking out over the open fields upon entering the settlement, I see young boys no more than 10 years old herding goats as we pass by what I learn is Nakivale’s only secondary school. With over half of Uganda’s refugee population under 18, the situation here is very much a children’s crisis. 80% of people in Nakivale are under 35 and only 49% of them get to go to school.
I hear a chorus of children’s voices and am immediately drawn to a small building, which I’m told is the primary school. On approaching the door, some 30 small children, spontaneously stand up from the floor and start to sing “Welcome, welcome, welcome visitor” in unison…it’s a very moving introduction as I realize I’ve probably never felt this welcome in my life. The school is just one room with no chairs or desks; the children return to their seats cross-legged on the dusty floor. Nakivale settlement, like the entire refugee response plan in Uganda, is severely underfunded and the classroom is sparse… no one has a pen or paper in their hands. Uganda is currently hosting a shocking 41,000 unaccompanied and separated refugee children. As I gaze at this sea of beautiful faces, I wonder how many of these children arrived here on their own and what these young eyes have already seen and endured.
The chanting of the lesson efficiently recommences, and it is then that I notice the teacher. Her smile is warm, her charisma palpable; a pen readily stowed in her cropped Afro hair. With such energy and passion, she has the class in the palm of her hand, including me.
I introduce myself and learn that her name is Françoise, and this is her English class. She volunteers as a teacher here 3 days a week; where the class size typically reaches 80 students. She was a teacher at home in DRC and when I ask if English is her main subject, she reels off the other 7 languages she speaks fluently. My jaw drops.
Françoise clearly loves the children and I ask if she has children of her own. She replies no with a sad smile and adds that she arrived here solo just last year. I want to know more about her experience, but aware I’m interrupting the class, I sense that this is not the right setting to delve any deeper, at least not for now.
Later, I ask her if she would mind sharing her journey with me. For the first time since meeting, she becomes incredibly still and exhales deeply…
The cascade of heartbreak started at the Rwandan genocide in 1992. Françoise was married to a Tutsi and they had 4 children together. “My children were 9, 6, 4 and 2, and they cut my 6-year-old son into pieces in front of me and forced me to eat pieces of my own boy.” It was here that at 6 months pregnant she was brutally raped and sticks and broken bottles were pushed inside her. “Desperately close to death, I was taken to the hospital, bleeding everywhere…they could save me, but not my baby, and I’ll never have children again.”
“I became a madwoman; I was crazy and for a few years after losing all of my family, I lost my senses. But I was finally given support and a counsellor and gradually, over time, began to rebuild my life.”
She got a job as a health promoter with Medicins Sans Frontiers, using her experience to council other women who were victims of domestic violence and rape.
This would have been enough tragedy for many lifetimes, but Françoise’s resilience doesn’t end there. After several years of a peaceful and purposeful life as a counsellor, another epic fight for survival hit just two years ago. “I was travelling in a vehicle with other work colleagues; rebels shot at the car. My boss was killed immediately. Another woman and I were taken blindfolded and forced to walk until we came to the middle of a forest.” There she lived with the rebels as a virtual sex slave for a month, “I was raped on a daily basis.” What struck me was not just the brutality of each event, but also the layers of trauma compounded over decades.
Françoise made it to Nakivale settlement in June 2018, and in that short time she is not only teaching and leading her community, she is also fostering a young woman called Paula, from Burundi, and is excitedly making room in her small house to accommodate another foster daughter. I ask myself, where does she find such capacity for kindness when she’s been through so much herself?
Françoise and numerous other female refugees just like her have endured unthinkable pain. What seems remarkable to me is that she not only has survived, but she has launched herself into a new life. Motivated to help and support others, Françoise teaches children, works with other women, runs groups, and fosters some of the huge numbers of unaccompanied children.
EVERYONE CAN HELP REFUGEES AND THE COMMUNITIES HOSTING THEM. TO JOIN UNHCR IN PROTECTING CHILDREN AND TO SUPORT FOSTER MOTHERS LIKE FRANÇOISE, PLEASE DONATE BY CALLING 1-877-232-0909 OR VISIT UNHCR.CA.