We continue our tribute on Refugees making a difference with our focus on political refugee Walter Lam (Uganda), genocide survivor Yolande Mukagasana (Rwanda) and Human Rights Lawyer Makau Mutua (Kenya).
When Walter Lam arrived in San Diego in 1986 as a political refugee from Uganda, he had no idea that within 13 years, he would be the President and Chief Executive Officer of an agency with 53 employees, a budget of $1.5 million and an agenda to help refugees like himself.
Lam was an agricultural engineer by profession, until political persecution forced him to flee to Kenya, where with the help of Amnesty International and the La Jolla Presbyterian Church, he managed to resettle in the United States.
Lam’s son died in March 1999 after police beatings, despite his non-political stance. Lam, his wife and daughter were unable to attend the funeral because it was still unsafe for him to return to Uganda.
In his first years in San Diego, Lam’s main preoccupation was to find a job, become self-sufficient and try to bring his family over to America. It was difficult to adjust, because he was unable to resume his original profession. As more and more refugees arrived in San Diego, Lam decided to use what he had learned to help refugees settle in. Working out of a garage, he started to assist other Africans who came to him. The Alliance for African Assistance, which Lam founded in 1989, now employs staff from 16 different countries.
In 1991, the Board of Directors decided the Alliance should assist not only Africans, but also refugees from all over the world. In 1999, it helped 23,000 people, including 107 refugees from Kosovo. Projects include working with schools on behalf of refugee children and with the San Diego Police to develop youth initiatives to combat inner-city gangs.
Well before becoming a naturalised American citizen in January 2000, Lam was recognised for his leadership in the immigrant community of San Diego.
He is a member of the California Refugee Health Advisory Board, the California State Advisory Committee for Refugees, the California Refugee Forum, the San Diego Police Review Board, the Community Building Committee of United Way, and the Prostate Cancer Community Advisory Committee of the Scripps Cancer Center.
As a Tutsi nurse from Kigali, Yolande Mukagasana managed to escape the Rwandan genocide and flee to Belgium, where she was granted refugee status in 1995. In her book “La mort ne veut pas de moi” (“Death Does Not Want Me”), she recounts how she survived while her husband, three children, and many of her relatives and friends died.
During the 100-day genocide, she hid in the bushes, behind a sink, and was even a guest in the house of one of the perpetrators of the mass murder.
When she arrived in Belgium, she found her professional qualifications were not recognised, in spite of the fact that she had undergone her specialisation there several years earlier. She took a job in an old folks’ home.
In 1999, Mukagasana went back to Rwanda, accompanied by Greek photographer Alain Kazinierakis, to interview both victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. This material has been shown in a travelling exhibition, “Les Blessures du silence“, (“The Wounds of Silence”), organised by Mukagasana together with Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
Mukagasana underlines the need for reconciliation and advocates rehabilitation projects such as re-enacting and narrating experiences through theatre. She is part of a theatre group, Groupov, which has staged a production called “Rwanda 1994”. Together with Kazinierakis, in December 1999, she co-founded Nyamirambo, point d’appui, which hopes to serve as a platform for research, a foundation for memory and an act of rebuilding.
“The genocide can not be interpreted as a humanitarian drama. This would mean refusing to analyse the way a genocide can be carried out,” says Mukagasana.
Through her own testimony and the testimonies she gathers, the complex aspects of the Rwandan genocide emerge. Mukagasana points to the ethnic quotas policy that was introduced after Rwanda’s independence in 1961, and caused a large outflow of refugees to neighbouring countries; the complexity of a genocide where henchmen and victims shared the same language, religion, culture and were often living side by side; as well as the meticulous preparation for the genocide. She believes it is important to recognise that often the perpetrators were victims of their own acts.
“Generalisations only favour the killers”, says Mukagasana, “I was saved by a Hutu.”
Recognising the strong oral tradition of Rwanda as a principal method of communication, she advocates the need to break the silence that revolves around the genocide. She goes back to Rwanda several times a year, although she is not able to stay there permanently due to her haunting memories. “I am like a polygamous husband – I have a family in Belgium and one in Rwanda,” she says jokingly.
Following her flight to Belgium, she adopted her younger brother’s three children, who were left without their parents. Back in Rwanda, she gave her house to three orphans and hopes that it will remain open for others in need. She would also like to build a memorial there for children who were killed in Rwanda, as “no one remained alive to testify in my village”.
Mukagasana has written a continuation of her first testimony, “N’aie pas peur de savoir” (“Don’t Be Afraid to Know”) and is also working on a book of testimonies of perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. She won the Ulrich-ZwienerStiftung prize in 1999 for her human rights work.
Human rights lawyer Makau Mutua never gave up hope – not during his student days fighting the political system in Kenya and not even when he was forced to leave his country.
While attending the University of Nairobi Law School, he became the Secretary General of the Students Union. He was arrested and detained for organising students to fight against one-party rule, official corruption and human rights violations in Kenya. He was expelled from the University of Nairobi during his second year in law school, and fled the country in May 1981.
With the help of UNHCR, Mutua became one of the first Kenyans to be granted asylum in Tanzania. The UN refugee agency provided him with financial assistance, which enabled him to attend the University of Dar-Es-Salaam.
In 1982, he survived an attempted kidnapping by security forces, which planned to return him to Kenya. He sought to leave Tanzania, feeling that it had become unsafe for Kenyan refugees. He was once again assisted by UNHCR, which paid for his ticket to the United States, permitting him to enrol in the world-famous law programme at Harvard Law School.
Mutua is now a Professor of Law at the State University of New York, Buffalo School of Law. He is also the Director of Human Rights Center, and is co-founder and Chair of the Nairobi-based Kenya Human Rights Commission. He has written extensively on human rights, international law and African politics.
In an inspirational message to citizens of the world, Mutua writes: “Refugees must never despair and remember to keep on working hard, even when the days and nights are long and lonely. Quite often, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The ability to hope and dream of a better day kept me motivated and inspired. Without hope, I would have been lost.”
Courtesy of UNHCR 2011