Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Flickr user oledoe.

We are together: How a refugee’s story helped me write my own

Jun 21, 2016 · 6 min read

By Jessica Hansen, Global Engagement Manager at Kiva

I’ve only seen the film Hotel Rwanda twice.

The first time, I was alone on my parents’ couch in small-town Oklahoma. I tend to want to be emotionally prepared for heavy films with difficult subject matter, but when do you ever feel prepared enough to bear witness to such a magnitude of senseless violence and tragedy as what happened in Rwanda?

The answer is never, so I finally just took a deep breath and hit play.

I should mention, I’d just gotten a master’s degree in social work with a special focus on working with refugees. I’d also helped compile interviews from survivors of rape and gender-based violence in refugee camps.

I should’ve been more prepared than most for the content of the film, but as the credits rolled at the end, I sat alone in the dark weeping about the worst parts of humanity, feeling infinitely small.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the issue. At that time there were over 50 million refugees in the world (that number shrank during my years in the field, but due to recent events has now increased to over 65 million).

These are people and families who fled their homes in fear as danger and death approached, thinking they’d return in a week or month when the violence died down — not knowing the reality that they would likely be in a refugee camp for decades. Less than half of 1% of them are ever resettled to a new home like the United States or Europe, and for that chosen few, a potentially even more difficult path lies ahead.

I wanted to do something for and with this group, who by no fault of their own were the most disadvantaged in the world — whose own governments, leaders and neighbors either offered them no protection or were actively killing or persecuting them.

It was all a bit overwhelming for a kid from Oklahoma, not knowing what role I could possibly play, but by some miracle just a few months later, I was already interning at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, learning a great deal, and preparing for World Refugee Day 2005.

While other interns were clamoring to be assigned to work with our Goodwill Ambassador, the infinitely lovely Angelina Jolie (don’t get me wrong, I was a bit weak-kneed to meet her myself) or our other guests like Condoleezza Rice, I had requested to be assigned to one of our Humanitarian of the Year honorees, Paul Rusesabagina, the former manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines, also known as Hotel Rwanda.

There are too many beautiful moments with Paul that may have changed the course of my life to possibly relay, but my favorite among them occurred during my second and final viewing of Hotel Rwanda at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.

Paul had seen it so many times (and had, of course, lived it), so he wanted to rest and for me to return to collect him about 20 minutes before it was over for the Q&A afterward. I did, and we watched the end from the back wall, in a room full of world leaders, dignitaries, celebrities, and refugee survivors.

I wondered what it was like to watch the worst moments of your own life played out on a big screen, your decisions and emotions being followed so closely by total strangers, your most traumatic memories squeezed into the length of a feature film.

As I wondered this, men with machetes tore across the screen, as Don Cheadle (playing Paul) searched desperately for his family, realizing with growing certainty that his wife and children had likely been murdered among the masses. My eyes brimmed with tears as I tried to imagine what this lovely, kind, wise man next to me must have felt in those moments of struggling to accept the potential horrible loss of those he loved most and yet grasping for any hope that it wasn’t so.

I felt a comforting squeeze on my hand and looked over to see eyes equally brimmed with tears, and a soft smile meant to comfort me in a moment of shared grief at the fear and pain that he, his family, and in essence all refugees endure. When I’d first seen the film, never did I imagine I’d ever meet the man who lived it — and here I was being graciously comforted by him.

That moment taught me the very meaning and depth of the word compassion and was the first time I heard what would become a familiar phrase echoed across many African cultures I have worked with, as he whispered assuringly, “We are together.”

I went on to work all over the world for many of the major refugee organizations in the following years, including resettling more than 10,000 Burundian refugees, both Hutus and Tutsis, to the United States from camps throughout East Africa.

I befriended thousands of incredible refugees in the process and found them invaluable and inspiring partners as we struggled alongside each other in this important work.

And little did I know that this work and these amazingly resourceful and resilient people would lead me to the conclusion that the old way of doing things (sending in a bunch of outsiders with a short-term injection of knowledge and funds) often caused more harm than good, and that what was needed were innovative ways to get people the tools and resources they needed to create better lives for themselves, their families, and communities. What they want and need, once they make it to a safe place, are partners, not “rescuers” or “saviors.”

Not long after this, about 10 years ago, I learned about Kiva and the concept of microfinance.

At the time, I didn’t know I would join the team at Kiva someday and honestly Kiva seemed too good to be true. I could see the transformative role it could play, but it was just getting started and I was doubtful it could survive and prove itself — I wanted to believe but it just didn’t seem possible.

Yet 10 years on, Kiva has a repayment rate over 97% despite the fact that we work in conflict zones and areas affected by natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons. Kiva has lent more than $850 million to more than 2 million borrowers around the world, helped students in poverty attend university, helped clean energy and clean water social enterprises take root, and transformed lives and futures through the beautiful and powerful connections that each and every loan yields.

When you dig down to the root of the world’s major conflicts, at their deepest core they tend to be about the desire of one person or group to gain control over resources and deny access to others. The Kiva community does the precise opposite in pooling together funds and resources to make them available to people who would otherwise be denied them.

While refugees may represent only a portion of our borrowers (an incredibly strong and impressive portion), as we continue to help improve access to education, healthcare, finances, and most importantly choice and opportunity, we create a world that is less driven toward conflict over resources or opportunity, but is instead built on sharing resources, connection, innovation and collaboration. Every single loan, every positive change in lives and communities takes us further from a world of conflict and violence.

People often wonder how I ended up at Kiva when I have such a long history and commitment to working with refugees. The answer is that I still help many refugees, but with Kiva, I am also working toward a world where there will be fewer people forced to take on the title of ‘refugee.’

In this potential future, more people will have access to the resources they need to create a better life for themselves and others, and can move around this incredible world driven by wonder and curiosity rather than fear.

Our founders named Kiva after the idea of partnership, connection, and unity. I am here because through Kiva, “We are together.”


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