Clemantine Wamariya could easily be mistaken for someone you might have sat next to in your sixth grade math class. A smart, bubbly, beautiful girl with an Ivy League education to boot, there is no indication that her life has ever been anything other than rosy. You could easily envision her playing on your grade school volleyball team, giggling coyly in the hallways or dating one of the popular boys. But that’s where the story line would be wrong. Because Clemantine Wamariya wasn’t in school in sixth grade. In fact, she wasn’t even in the United States or living in a home for that matter. Clemantine Wamariya was running for her life. Literally.
You see, Clemantine was born in Rwanda and was living there when genocide broke out. That was in 1994 and Clemantine was just six years old. For the next six years, Clemantine ran. Her story is not simply remarkable, it is, frankly — miraculous. We wanted to share Clemantine’s story not only because it is one of the most moving stories we have ever heard, but because it will also change the way you think about your own life and it will open your eyes to how profoundly important one simple act of kindness can be.
Favoire: Clemantine, tell us your story. What was life like in Rwanda at the time?
Clemantine: I was born in Rwanda. When the conflict in Rwanda started I was six years old. I didn’t know what was happening, so I always just referred to it as “the noise.” I could feel though, that something was wrong. Things moved fast — the noises went from drums to guns in a short matter of time. My parents thought that it would blow over so they sent my sister and I to the country to live with my grandparents until things calmed down. But things never calmed down. When they came to our town, my sister (who was 15 at the time) and I escaped — we had no idea where our parents were. We walked from one village to another sometimes crawling…this is the kind of walking you’ve never done before. The kind where your feet bleed from walking so much. We ended up going to Burundi to a refugee camp, but it was so bad there, we had never experienced what life in a refugee camp was like. My sister at 17 got married and that’s how we got out of that refugee camp. We walked from there to the Congo but there was civil war there as well. My sister just had a baby. We fled the Congo and went to Tanzania, then to Mozambique then on to South Africa all the while staying in refugee camps along the way. (The Rwandan genocide is one of the worst genocides in history resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutus. Clemantine went from refugee camp to refugee camp and from country to country for six years. Eventually she made it to America through Organization International Migration… she did not find her parents until years after she arrived in the U.S.)
Favoire: What are you up to today?
Clemantine: I recently graduated from Yale University and I live in San Francisco. I go around the country sharing my story. I aim to dare other people to go deep into their own stories and hope to inspire them to think about their own world and experiences.
Favoire: How did you discover your purpose? When did you know that you wanted to share your story with the rest of the world?
Clemantine: In Mozambique we were rejected at the border because they said they weren’t taking any more refugees. They put us in this truck and dropped us off at a market in Zambia. And let me tell you this was a crowded market, unlike anything you have seen before– the crowds are just endless. When we got there, my sister went off to find a place for us to stay and I took the two babies and sat down on my luggage, feeling ashamed of being a refugee and so alone and lost. I thought I would burst into tears when a woman came up to me and gave us bananas and water. I had been so stripped of my connection to others and this woman SAW me. Just by looking me in the eye and connecting with me she gave me dignity and raised me up. This moment changed my life forever. Things changed so completely when I was respected. I realized the power of the human spirit — how powerful it is to just be a part of someone else’s life and I knew from that moment that I wanted to share my experiences with others. I wanted to turn the ugly things that had happened to me into something beautiful.
Favoire: How do you feel about your personal style, what does style or fashion mean to you?
Clemantine: Everything I own in my closet has a story. Stuff is not just stuff — things were given to me with love. I have beautiful things that were given to me, but I never talk about the object itself, I talk about the beautiful person who gave it to me or the story behind it.
Favoire: War and genocide is a beyond imaginable atrocity. What did those experiences teach you about humanity and the world?
Clemantine: I am who I am because I have seen the other side of humanity. I am who I am today, not because of the suffering we endure but because of the greatness of other people. I chose to move forward not with anger but with gratitude. I am hopeful for this world. It is so important to share experiences with one another. Humans are so often in their own heads and not looking to others. But we have to realize that we are always invited to be a part of someone else’s story — we are together in this. The world is part of us and we are part of the world. Even through the smallest acts we can demonstrate that. I believe in the human spirit, in the kindness in all of us and I am hopeful for this world.
And it is with deep gratitude that we thank Clemantine for sharing her story with us.