Tragedy & Triumph
An international student blooms at UVU despite unspeakable personal tragedy and loss.
By Michael Rigert
UVU Magazine, Spring 2013
There is something in Claudine Kuradusenge’s illuminating eyes and her calm, unassuming self-confidence that tells you this talented woman is someone who knows where she has been and where she wants to go.
A UVU student from East Africa who graduated in April, Claudine speaks smooth English with a noticeable, but not readily discernable, accent. She has served as a key member of the UVU Center for Global & Intercultural Engagement’s International Student Council, and devoted dozens of hours each week to assisting the institution’s 700 international students. Chair of the ISC’s Global Engagement Team, Claudine led programs and organized events that benefit not only students from around the world but also the entire campus.
Claudine earned her bachelor’s degree in only two and a half years while also working part-time on campus. When not busy with her studies, her ISC duties, or her job, she also organized academic conferences and presentations, participated in UVU’s African and UNICEF clubs, and applied to graduate programs.
But those close to Claudine know there is much more than meets the eye to this remarkable UVU grad. As a young child, the native Rwandan lived through the horrors of that country’s 1994 genocide that left nearly a million dead, an experience that ripped her family apart and nearly destroyed her. When the killing began, her family was scattered, and she narrowly escaped the deplorable conditions of an overcrowded refugee camp.
Despite her great suffering and loss, Claudine, through an unmistakable inner strength and inextinguishable spirit, rebounded from the cataclysm. She flourished at UVU and wants to use her university education to ensure that what happened in her homeland is never repeated. A fighter who refuses to be a victim, Claudine considers it an obligation to make the most of her life and become an advocate for peaceful resolutions to the world’s conflicts.
Fabrice Nsabimana ’12, one of Claudine’s cousins who evacuated with his family when the genocide began, preceded her at UVU. For Claudine to propel herself to academic success in such a short time is part of who she is, he says.
“Claudine is dedicated and a go-getter,” Fabrice says. “She won’t sleep when she wants to finish something and make it perfect.”
A member of the country’s Hutu tribe, Claudine was raised in a large family in Ruhengeri. When her father, Aminadab Ndabarishi, suddenly died from an unknown illness when Claudine was 2, she was sent to live with her aunt Athanasie Uwimana. Claudine’s mother, Anisia Nyirankera, at the time pregnant and abruptly single, simply couldn’t care for her six children.
In April 1994, Rwanda, at the end of a multi-year civil war, erupted into genocide and mayhem between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes after the Rwandan president and most of his cabinet were assassinated when rebels shot down their aircraft.
Athanasie’s husband and Claudine’s uncle, Déogratias Nsabimana, a ranking general in the Rwandan army and a military attaché to the president, was also killed aboard the president’s plane. The French government evacuated Athanasie and her children. But Claudine was returned to her mother.
“I was just scared,” says Claudine, who was only 5 at the time. “You could hear gunfire all over, people screaming. Most of the people died in the first nine days.”
Within a couple of days, Claudine’s mother decided that the family had no choice but to flee to the United Nations refugee camp in Goma on the border of neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two-day trek was nightmarish.
“My baby sister, Maria, got sick on the way, and I couldn’t stop crying,” Claudine says. “The dead were everywhere.”
The vastly overcrowded and disease-ridden refugee camp offered little hope or relief. Some 2 million Rwandans were flowing into a few hastily erected camps in the area. Claudine’s family was now confronted with near-starvation, non-existent medical care or supplies, and other inhumane deprivations. She remembers her lone solace in the misery-struck sea of humanity being what she described as an oversized blue plastic bag the UN had issued refugees for shelter.
A couple of months later, the cruelest moment of Claudine’s time in the camp came. Her 2-year-old sister, Maria, unable to get the medicines she needed, died before Claudine’s eyes.
“If hell exists, it looks like the refugee camp we were in,” Claudine said. “(Maria) had become all I had. At that point, living was too hard; it was so easy to let yourself go.”
Shattered by the trauma, Claudine cowered on the ground in a catatonic state and stopped talking.
A Way Out
Fearful for Claudine because of the horrors she had endured, her mother pleaded in letters that Athanasie devise a way to extricate Claudine from the camp. Athanasie, then in France, acquired and doctored a set of identity papers. But she couldn’t come up with papers for Claudine’s mother.
“That’s the hardest thing, actually,” Claudine says. “That’s the last time I ever saw her. She told me I would be going away for a few days, and then, she would see me.”
In August 1994, Claudine was brought across the border, flew to France, and eventually arrived in Belgium, where she, still mute from her trauma, was reunited with Athanasie, her cousins and other surviving relatives.
Two years later, the all too familiar feelings of terror and loss returned when Claudine, through a phone call, learned that her mother, who had survived the refugee camp, had been murdered by roving Tutsi soldiers demanding money. Her mother didn’t have any; she was shot and killed on the spot.
“I think I cried for a week,” Claudine says. “They don’t investigate those crimes, especially when the soldiers commit them.”
A Way Up
Through the passage of time and the beginning of a healing process that may span her life, Claudine began talking again in 1996. Living with family in Brussels, she became enthralled with education and completed six years of secondary education, including emphases in Greek, Latin and science.
Much like her cousins, Claudine wanted to pursue a university education, and planned to major in public relations, with a minor in criminal justice. But when she learned it takes four years to complete the same education in America that would take an average of 10 years in Belgium, it was a no-brainer.
Despite three years of high school English, she knew she needed more language training to reach a comfortable level of academic proficiency. Claudine enrolled in six months of intensive English instruction (classes were five days a week, 14 hours a day). At the same time, she found employment at a chocolate factory, which allowed her to piggy-bank funds for college in the U.S., with the fringe benefit of free product samples.
At the urging of Fabrice and his older sister, Yvonne, who both attended UVU, and Athanasie, Claudine applied to the University, flew to Utah in April 2010 and promptly completed 18 credit hours during summer semester. She dove into her studies and became a regular volunteer at the international center, where her dedication and work ethic caught the attention of Stephen Crook, director of International Student Services, and various faculty members.
“Claudine has been an amazing asset to the international students. I can’t say enough,” Crook says. “She has this incredible drive to achieve whatever goals that she sets for herself.”
Never one to stay in her comfort zone, Claudine, after representing UVU students from the Middle East on the International Student Council and observing misconceptions about the region’s majority faith — Islam — took action. Though not Muslim herself, she wanted to help create greater public awareness about the religion and culture of its adherents. Almost single-handedly, Claudine organized the University’s first academic Conference on Islam in March 2012, which featured UVU scholars and external experts, including J. Bonner Ritchie, a renowned professor and UVU scholar in residence emeritus, and an imam from a Salt Lake City mosque.
“It was challenging to open people’s minds,” Claudine says. “As a public relations student, I learned how to present it effectively to create a rich experience for attendees.”
Claudine, who minored in criminal justice and peace and justice studies, didn’t stop there. Again, with the assistance of ISC students and UVU faculty and staff as mentors, she organized the second annual Conference on Islam in February 2013. And last November, she coordinated the organization of the international center’s annual Global Engagement Week that draws roughly 2,000 to 3,000 to experience UVU students’ diverse cultural, linguistic and culinary offerings.
Perhaps Claudine’s most powerful impact has been upon herself. It’s still difficult for her to talk about what happened (nightmares are a near-nightly occurrence). But after publically sharing her story for the first time in an essay assignment as a member of a cross-cultural communication course taught by Ritchie and his wife, Lois, Claudine learned that her powerful story could inspire others to confront their own demons. Following Claudine’s example, her classmates began sharing their personal hardships and tragedies with the resolve to face and conquer them, Ritchie says.
In 2011, the organizers of an academic conference on the plight of refugees invited Claudine to be a featured speaker at the UVU-hosted event. Bolstered by her experience with the Ritchies, and at the urging of friends and colleagues, she accepted.
“It was tough. I was crying through half of it,” Claudine says. “But, yeah, I’m glad I did it. I would do it again.”
In a sense, sharing her story publically has been a cathartic experience, helping to bring her healing to new levels and solidifying her resolve to continue graduate studies, earn a doctoral degree and pursue a career as a scholar and activist in conflict resolution.
Ritchie says what Claudine has accomplished at UVU is miraculous, and her efforts also have had an impact on him, his students and the institution.
“Claudine has the ability to abstract way beyond what most people can and see the issues,” he says. “I think she felt that she had something unique to offer and got really involved, and in the process, lost herself in helping students overcome their biases and made UVU a better university. She is building bridges in terms of religion, ethnicity, gender and tribal groups that are pretty unique.”
Reconciliation Is a Process
With a firm grasp on the issues of conflict and what it takes to effect lasting peace between two sets of peoples, Claudine is realistic about the prognosis for Rwanda. Divided by centuries of prejudice, Hutus and Tutsis are making slow progress toward better understanding and mutual respect, but the road will be a long one. Because children in both tribes continue to be raised with biases about the other tribe, she believes it will take at least three to five generations before the tribes truly accept each other as equals.
But an open-minded individual, who leaves her baggage at the door and comes to the table to talk, can be a powerful step toward peace, Claudine says.
“Mostly, it’s about people coming together and finding solutions,” she says. “There are no small parts; just big team projects.”
Ritchie recognizes that Claudine, with her considerable strengths of drive, determination and desire to make a difference, is a rare individual.
“Her performance in my class would put her in the top 1 percent of all students I have had over 40 years of university teaching,” Ritchie said in his recommendation of her for graduate school. “She is a natural leader. She has confronted a threatening world with a courage and commitment that most of us simply cannot understand.”
Claudine believes that one person can make a difference in changing the world, and that each individual who dares to do so has the potential to affect a generation. But for real and lasting improvements to take place in Rwanda, reform will have to begin in the home, with mothers and their children, rather than in Kigali’s parliament hall with politicians, she says.
“We say at home that when you educate a woman, you educate an entire society,” Claudine says. “Everyone has the opportunity and should have the duty to do something.”