At age six, I ran away with my sister to escape the Rwandan massacre. We spent seven years as refugees. What do you want me to do about it? Cry?

By Clemantine Wamariya
and Elizabeth Weil
Portraits by Andrew White

The day we taped the Oprah show, in 2006, I met my sister Claire at her run-down, three-bedroom apartment in Rogers Park, where she lived with the three kids she had before age 21, thanks to her ex-husband, an aid worker who’d picked her up at a refugee camp. A black car arrived and drove us to downtown Chicago. I was a junior at New Trier High School, living Monday to Friday with the Thomas family in Kenilworth, a fancy suburb. Claire, unlike me, was not a kid when we got asylum in the United States, so nobody sent her to school or took her in. Instead, she worked as a maid, cleaning 200 hotel rooms a week. All I knew about The Oprah Winfrey Show we were taping was that it was a two-part series: the first, a segment of Oprah and Elie Wiesel visiting Auschwitz, God help us; the second, the 50 winners of Oprah’s high school essay contest, of which I was one. All of us winners had written about why Wiesel’s book Night, his gutting story of surviving the Holocaust, is still relevant today. I dictated my essay to Mrs. Thomas, my American mother, who packed my lunch and drove me to school. I said that maybe if Rwandans had read Night, they wouldn’t have decided to kill each other.

Oprah sat on stage on a white love seat, next to tired, old Elie Wiesel, who sat in a white overstuffed chair. Oprah said glowing things about all the winners except me, which I told myself was fine. I hadn’t really gone to school until age 13, and when I was seven, I’d celebrated Christmas with a shoebox of pencils that I’d buried under our tent so that nobody would steal it. But then Oprah leaned forward and said, “So, Clemantine, before you left Africa, did you ever find your parents?”

I had a mic cord tucked under my black TV blazer and a battery pack clipped to my black TV pants, so I should have known something like this was coming. “No,” I said.

“So when was the last time you saw them?” Oprah asked.

“It was 1994,” I said, “when I had no idea what was going on.”

“Well, I have a letter from your parents,” Oprah said, like we’d won a game show. “Clemantine and Claire, come on up here!”

Claire kept on her toughest, most skeptical face, because she knows more about the world than I do. I leapt up onto the set smiling, because I learned some really useful skills as a refugee — like, I always could read what people wanted me to do.

“This is from your family, in Rwanda,” Oprah said, handing me a tan envelope. “From your father and your mother and your sisters and your brother.” Claire and I did know that our parents were alive, but we’d barely talked to them because — how do you start? Why didn’t you look harder for us? How are you? I’m fine, thanks, now working at Gap, and I’ve found it’s much easier to learn to read English if you also listen to audio books? I opened the envelope and pulled out a sheet of blue paper. Then Oprah, thank God, put her hand on mine. She stopped me from unfolding it, a huge relief. I didn’t want to have a breakdown on TV.

“You don’t have to read it right now, in front of all these people,” Oprah said, mercifully. “You don’t have to read it in front of all these people….” She paused, grandmaster of stagecraft that she is. “Because… because… your family…. IS HERE!”

(George Burns/Harpo)

I started walking backward. Claire’s jaw unhinged, a caricature of shock. Then a door, that weirdly had images of barbed wire on it, opened stage right and out ran an eight year old boy, who was apparently my brother. He was followed by my father, in a dark suit, salmon shirt, and tie; a shiny new five-year-old sister; my mother in a long blue dress; and my sister, Claudine, now taller than me, who I’d last seen her when she was two and I still believed my mother picked her from a banana tree. I’d fantasized and prayed about this moment so many times. I used to write my name in dust on buses, hoping my mother would see my loopy cursive “Clemantine” and realize that I was alive. I saved coins, so I could buy my parents presents.

Claire remained frozen. But I, in my newly-purchased TV clothes and blown-out hair, ran toward my family, arms outstretched. I hugged my brother. I hugged my father. I hugged my tiny little sister. I tried to hug my mother but my knees gave out — I guess I was a cartoon, too — and my mother had to pick me up. Then I hugged her. I hugged Claudette. I walked across the stage and hugged Oprah and the lovely, weathered Eli Wiesel. The cameras were so far away that I forgot I was participating in a million-viewer spectacle, though I was aware enough to realize that everybody in the audience was crying, including the one other Rwandan essay contest winner. I wiped my eyes, put my hand on her shoulder, and said, “My mother is your mother, too,” which probably offended the hell out of her.

Then we were ejected onto the sidewalk outside Harpo Studios and my whole new family took a black car north to my sister’s apartment. Nobody knew what to do. My mother kept sitting down and standing up, and touching everything, and singing about how God had protected us and now we must serve and love him. My father kept smiling, like someone he mistrusted was taking pictures of him. Claire remained catatonic; I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real. I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones that had replaced me and Claire. I fell asleep crying and woke still wearing my Oprah shoes.

Clemantine’s Oprah shoes, worn only once since being on the show.

The next day was Friday. Of course, I didn’t go to school. I couldn’t look at my parents — they were ghosts. I felt gratitude, sure, but I also felt kicked in the stomach, like my life was some sicko psychologist’s perverse experiment: Let’s see how far can we take a person down, and then how far can her raise her up, and then let’s see what happens! My mother loved to garden in my early childhood home, so Saturday we went to the Chicago Botanical Garden. We did Navy Pier — Ferris wheel, cotton candy, all the tourist stuff. My father kept smiling his fake, pained smile. Claire never said a word. Then, Monday morning, my parents and new siblings left on the flight back to Rwanda that Oprah’s people had booked for them. I caught a Red Line and then the Purple Line train back up to Kenilworth. Mrs. Thomas picked me up at the station and dropped me at school.

When we first landed in the United States, in O’Hare Airport, people holding WELCOME TO AMERICA signs gave us balloons and gift bags with $100 pre-paid cards for Limited Too. On my first day of school, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and ironed my Limited Too sweater and jeans. By that point I was 13, so I was put in sixth grade. Claire walked me down to school an hour early. We noticed kids walking into the cafeteria and eating a free breakfast, so like a good refugee, I walked into the cafeteria and ate the free breakfast, too.

At the end of that year my teacher told our sponsor at church that I really should be in a better school. So our sponsor asked around the community and the Thomases, also members of the church, agreed to take me in. I lived with their family Monday to Friday. It was amazing, and I felt so overwhelmed. Mrs. Thomas read with me everyday — The Boxcar Children, The Little Prince. She hired me tutors and brought me on family vacations to Florida, but I didn’t want get too close: no I-love-you’s, no kisses goodnight. My sole focus was bootstrapping, working the American system, picking myself up out of my depths like some international Horatio Alger. At school, the cheerleaders looked happy, so I became a cheerleader. I ran on the track team. I acted in the school’s improv troupe. I peer counseled. I even fundraised with my school’s Aid for Africa club. Sometimes I misfired. Once I signed up for a church youth camping trip, which I didn’t quite process because Mrs. Thomas packed my bags for me. Then I arrived at Big Foot Beach State Park, looked around, and thought, what is this nightmare? Why on earth would you pay and sleep in a tent by choice?

Clemantine cheerleading in 7th grade at Christian Heritage Academy.

Around town, some people treated me like an egg, the poor, fragile refugee girl. People wanted to help in the ways that they wanted to help. One day one of Mrs. Thomas’s friends picked me up at school in her convertible, handed me a pair of sunglasses, and said, “We’re going shopping today. Call me Auntie Wilma.” She became my godmother of shopping. We drove to Nordstrom’s.

“Okay, here’s how it works,” she said. “You buy things you can mix with things you already have. It’s not only about trend but what will last longer.”

I liked clothes — and my new Auntie Wilma was being sweet; as much as anything, she wanted to teach me about my growing body. But I was also thinking, “Why are you doing this? Why should I care?”

On Fridays, I rode the L down to Rogers Park, stopping along the way at Blockbuster to spend the allowance the Thomases gave me on buckets of popcorn, soda, and rented movies. At Claire’s apartment, I made a pillow fort and spent the night inside snacking and watching movies with Claire’s kids — Mariette, eight; Frederick, five; and Michelle, two. My sister had so much responsibility. In addition to being a young mother, she was an extraordinary survivor. So just like we did in Africa, I took care of her children while she hustled and worked. Saturday mornings she headed to downtown Chicago to clean rooms at the Wyndham Hotel. I made pancakes and ice cream for breakfast for her three kids, then did all her family’s laundry, cooked, and froze meals for her family for the week, and made sure Mariette, Frederick, Michelle had plans after school. On Sundays, like good Rwandans, we went to church and pretended everything was great. That seemed to be the official policy of Rwandan culture: chin up, clothes ironed, don’t stand out. Sunday night, I returned to my life as a pampered child in suburban Kenilworth. Claire never resented it. She never knew that Mrs. Thomas made me three meals a day and that at the Thomases’ house I had a big cozy bedroom, my own bathroom, and no cockroaches.

Clemantine and Claire in 2003 in Claire’s new apartment in Edgewater, Illinois, the first place she lived after leaving her husband.

A year after Oprah, Claire became a citizen and flew back to Rwanda, where my parents now lived on the outskirts of Kigali, in a shack. They’d lost everything in what people were calling the intambara — Kinyarwanda for “eruption” orexplosion”; how are you supposed to capture 800,000 people being killed by their friends and neighbors in 100 days? Two months after that first trip, Claire flew to Rwanda again, and this time brought my mother and youngest sister back to live in the United States. A few months later, my father, younger brother, and sister. Then my life became even more surreal. Like Claire, my parents didn’t talk about the past. They existed in a never-ending present, not asking too many questions, not allowing themselves to feel, moving forward inside a small, tidy life. Now on weekends, at Claire’s house, I’d see my little sister, who was six, jump into my mother’s lap — like anybody could just jump into our mother’s lap. She’d beg for my mother’s attention — like all lucky little girls do.

Clemantine, center top, graduating from New Trier High School in Illinois, surrounded by her Rwandan family: mom and dad on her left and right, Claire far right, and younger siblings, nieces, and nephews in foreground.

One Sunday, while I was doing my homework, I heard my mother in the kitchen, prepping beef stew and singing. When she finished, she sat next to me at the table, the first time we sat together like that in 14 years. Her dark skin didn’t match mine. Her hair was short and tight against her head — I remembered it as long. Her fingernails were chipped. Her lips were parched. Her singing sounded strange. The fantasy of reunion was a lie. No one could patch up my family and make it beautiful. The only things about my mother that conformed to my memory were her cheekbones and the white rosary she wore around her neck.

I ran to the bathroom and turned on the shower on full blast. After 20 minutes, Claire knocked on the door, annoyed.

“You are not taking a bath. Why are your eyes red?” she asked harshly. “Have you been crying? What happened?”

The college financial aid forms asked: How much do your parents make — and I was, like, which parents? Do you have family members who fought in the Civil War — which civil war? My New Trier High School advisor laughed when I showed him my list of schools: Princeton, Yale, Georgetown. He thought I should aim lower. Everybody did. But then I got a letter: waitlisted at Yale. I flew to New Haven, in the spring of 2008, and walked into the Dean of Admission’s office to convince him that I belonged there, at Yale, that I deserved a place among the world’s future leaders, that if people wanted to make the world a better place, I knew what to fix. He called the next week and offered me a full scholarship.

My writing in English was still not that great, so the Dean arranged for a post-grad scholarship year at Hotchkiss. Mrs. Thomas drove me out to Connecticut. She’d never been at an East coast boarding school before. Her own kids attended high-status universities — Duke, American, St. Olaf College — but as we drove onto the hundred-year-old estate of a campus, complete with boat house, cemetery, and two hockey rinks, Mrs. Thomas looked proud and confused. She’d done this: her family’s generosity had made Hotchkiss possible for me. But at some level, she expected life to have a certain order. Me being here wasn’t it.

Claire always taught me everything is yours, everything is not yours. The world owes you nothing; nobody deserves more or less than the next person. Even as a refugee she always kept one dignified outfit — early on, a crisp white blouse, well-fitting flare jeans, short black boots; later, a brown suit — so she could present herself to anybody, anywhere, as a smart, enterprising young woman, period. She asked no pity, no permission. She was a fact of life, an equal. Nobody needed to know more.

At Hotchkiss, Claire’s attitude, along with my refugee skills, served me well: Whose behavior do I model to achieve in this place? Who has real power and who is bluffing? Where are the dangers and how do I escape? My ability to hack the system got me there, into those long halls filled with portraits of pale, square-jawed men. But it couldn’t protect me from my inner life. I was also alone for the first time, away from Claire and the Thomases. I was 20 and felt so old and so young. One day, in a philosophy seminar, I sat around a table with my fellow students, the boys in sports jackets, the girls in sweaters. It was a beautiful, crisp fall day. The professor gave us a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain with two passengers. Your boat is sinking. One passenger is old and one is young. Who do you save?

With this, my veneer of decorum started to crack. Before I arrived on campus I asked the headmaster not to share my history. Nobody knew who I was. “Do you want to know what’s that really like?” I blurted out. “This is an abstract question to you?” Everybody stared.

A few weeks later, around that same seminar table — mahogany, with a view of the golf course — the professor asked us all to share the presentations we’d prepared on whether or not to send troops into a Black Hawk Down-like war scenario, like in Somalia. I cracked for real. “You have no idea, do you?” I yelled as one girl spoke. “You’ve never been in that scenario. What gives you a right to even talk? This is real. That’s me — and I have a name, and I’m alive and there are people out there who are dead, or they’re living but they’re checked out, and they hate the world because people in your country sat there and watched all of us getting slaughtered.” I ran out of class.

When I returned to fetch my bag, the professor asked me to meet him later in his office. He was in his mid-50s, with a salt-and-pepper beard, contained but kind. He told me that I needed to learn how to be a less emotional student. I did not agree. “I can’t be less emotional. It’s personal,” I said, all the while thinking that I didn’t survive all that horror to sip tea and join his club. I dropped the seminar and started therapy.

The following fall, at Yale, I tried again — psychology, history, and political science classes, to learn about the world abstractly. But those courses didn’t help me make sense of my life. I found them unnerving, intellectualized, and cold. So I built a private curriculum. My sophomore year I signed up for a class on the intense, inscrutable German writer W. G. Sebald because Sebald had written a book called On the Natural History of Destruction, and that sounded like my history. Sebald dropped into his books random-seeming photographs of libraries, eyes, animals, windows, and trees, as a way to try to capture the mass amnesia that fell over his country after the Second World War.

Ever since my freakout at Hotchkiss, I’d been on a mission to piece together who I was. I’d been looking at my hands — they were my mother’s hands. I’d been looking at my feet — my right foot in particular, it looked like my father’s foot. I knew I couldn’t understand myself through my American family or my classmates in their YALE sweatshirts and J. Crew skirts, even though I dressed like them. But I had so few concrete artifacts from my past — just a vinyl pencil case from South Africa and a photograph of myself at age four, dressed up for my aunt’s wedding, that I’d now hidden so deep that I could no longer find it. But Sebald offered a method, a technique for navigating out of the fog: He implied that if a person wades deep enough into memory, and pays close enough attention to the available clues, a narrative will emerge that makes moral and emotional sense.

Clemantine’s college copies of W.G. Sebald’s books.

I read all of Sebald’s books — The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, Vertigo. Then I started rereading. I also made a practice each day of walking by Annette, a woman who stood in front of Graduate Hall with a bucket of flowers that she purchased in bunches at the grocery store and sold as singles for a tiny profit. She was a fighter. Almost nobody noticed her until she called out, “Hey, sugar, come buy some of my flowers.” She had nothing to do with most students’ impressive, Ivy League lives. But to me she was a clue, a link to a buried past, a reminder of my sister who used to sell anything — salt, meat — so that she could save enough money for us to try to escape our deadening refugee lives. I had so many questions. Why did I use the GPS map on my phone, even on campus, when I knew where I was going? Why did I obsessively collect buttons and beads? Why did I talk so much — was I afraid I’d disappear? After Annette, I turned down Hillhouse Avenue and took pictures of the roots and vines growing outside the Yale cemetery. Then I studied the patterns in the images to see if they matched the patterns of the veins in my hands.

Once back in my dorm room, I retreated to the nest of pillows I built on my bed and pulled out my worn copy of Austerlitz, Sebald’s novel about a middle-aged man, who, as an infant, was shipped out of Czechoslovakia by his Jewish parents on the kindertransport, though nobody ever told him this. I twisted my earbuds to listen to Austerlitz on audiobook as I read. When my fair, green-eyed boyfriend, Ian, returned from his day — political science, crew team — I said, “Listen to this! Everything is connected!” I’d been with Ian for two years. I loved him and clung to him, but he often joked that I was having a more intense relationship with Sebald than I was with him. And it was true, in a way: I did want Ian to care more about Sebald, to interrogate the details of his own life. For instance, Ian was constantly playing and twisting pieces of paper or anything small in his hands, a nervous tic. But he wasn’t inclined to assigning much meaning to this, he didn’t want to investigate why he behaved as he behaved.

“Clemantine, you’re so weird,” Ian said, gently dismissing me.

Still, my own interrogations did not feel optional. Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?

I didn’t talk about my past. I didn’t want to be that refugee girl, I didn’t want to open that box. When I was in eighth grade, my class took a trip to Washington, D.C. Our first day there we visited the battle field at Antietam. I learned that 23,000 people had died there in a single day. Twenty-three thousand people. In one day. I broke down. The next day we visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where a docent handed me an identity card. It had a picture of a bald German man with round glasses — Jacob Unger, a salesman who died in the Sobibor extermination camp. He had two children and taught Hebrew in the evenings. My whole defensive shell cracked. Nobody in my family talked about all the people we knew who had been killed. I couldn’t hold it all inside anymore. At the Vietnam Memorial, I sat down and sobbed. I felt ashamed of being a human. I felt mad at everything and everyone. I’d thought I was the only one carrying this around and now… all those names.

Clemantine’s photograph from an 8th grade field trip to the battlefield at Antietam.

In 2011, I was invited to speak at a gala honoring Elie Wiesel at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I was then a junior in college. Mrs. Thomas’s friend wasn’t around to take me shopping, so I ordered a $100 dress online — red, with a shell top and a flounce at the waist. It fit horribly but I didn’t have time or money to buy another. I put on a black belt and declared myself good to go. The event filled with survivors and children of survivors, along with dozens of top fundraisers, all of whom made it their duty to remember and make the world remember, too. I was finally starting to realize what I meant to people, how my personal history could make me as relevant and powerful as any donor in the room.

I still often feel like the seven-year-old girl, waiting for water at the refugee camp in Burundi, trying to assert that I have a right to take up space. I scan every room for the exits, in case I need to run, and I read people’s faces and body language so I know how they’d like me to walk, talk, and gesture, what they’d like me to do. I know I am ridiculously privileged. I now have so much, and I used to be considered worthless, and nothing about who I am changed. I try to be grateful, proactive, and normal. I live in San Francisco. I go to therapy and yoga. I post filtered pictures on Instagram, hoping that the images will inspire someone, maybe even get someone to see that there’s some refugee girl in Syria, right now, who is exactly like me. I can’t stand to be in one place too long, so I travel a lot. I think the only hope for the world is for each of us to become a better, more self-aware, more responsible person. To inch us toward the goal, I talk about my life. “I was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. I was raised in nine different countries, eight of them in eastern and southern Africa. The ninth, and my current home, is the United States of America. No, my parents were not diplomats — far from it….”

People listen, and they don’t listen. They’re amazed and moved, and they look bored and proud of themselves, like they’re checking a box. I try to be relevant and not frightening. I totally freaked out watching The Hunger Games movie. Maybe you did, too? Some people pity me, and want to help me, and can’t stand the idea that I am not defeated and could help them as well. Others cast me as a martyr and a saint: You must be so strong, so brave. You must have learned so much. A few ask if I feel guilty for surviving. Uh, no. I did everything I could to survive. Do you think I should feel guilty for surviving? Do you feel guilty that on 9/11 you weren’t in one of the Twin Towers? I stand there and talk and ask people to investigate their lives and hope they stay awake. When people ask me what to do to ease human suffering, I don’t have a big answer. I just say, “Look, you have this one life. If you keep being selfish and unkind, it’s going to come back to you. Ask yourself why you’re scared, why you hate.” Almost every January, Claire flies back to Rwanda. She buys rice, beef, and potatoes, to throw a big New Year’s party for orphans. Then she puts on a fabulous dress, borrows my aunt’s most expensive bag, and makes me or my uncle, whomever is nearby, take hundreds of pictures of her. Back home, looking at the images, Claire’s daughter always asks, incredulous, “How could you possibly do that?”

Claire just shakes her head and laughs. “What do you want me to do? Cry?”

This story was written by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. It was edited by Mark Lotto and fact-checked by Hilary Elkins. Portraits by Andrew White for Matter. Additional photographs by Anna Vignet.


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