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.”