My brother the Rwandan refugee

For Father James Martin, working with refugees taught him how to love in a new way.
Peace & Justice

Before I was ordained, I spent two years in Kenya with the Jesuit Refugee Service working with refugees from across East Africa. My assignment, at the Mikono Centre in Nairobi, was to help refugees start small businesses, or, in the antiseptic lingo of relief agencies, “income-generating activities.” My two years ran from 1992 through 1994—during the time of both the famine in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda—and we saw not only dramatically increased flows of refugees into the dry Kenyan countryside, but also an awakened interest on the part of the West in concerns of East Africa.

The largest group of refugees with whom I worked were Rwandans. Many had settled in Nairobi in the 1960s and 1970s, following the continuing violence between the Hutu and Tutsi. Early on, a friend asked innocently, “Why are they still here? What’s wrong with going home to Rwanda?” A few months later, in April 1994, he would have his answer.

In the first few days it seemed too unbelievable to be true. Information was sketchy. There had been rumors of massacres, duly reported in the Nairobi papers but largely ignored elsewhere. Finally, news began trickling in. The numbers were raised daily.

In time, we realized that the worst news, the most incredible, was the most accurate: 800,000 were dead, with 1 million refugees living in camps with little water and no food. Cholera began to spread in the camps. Five thousand who had taken refuge in one church were slaughtered. Neighbors turned on one another. Kigali was nearly deserted. The rivers in Rwanda were clogged with bodies, some of which began to float into Lake Victoria. The papers published gruesome pictures of bloated corpses.


For the Rwandan refugees in Nairobi, many of who had been patiently saving money for the time when it was safe to return home, the lack of information from their families, coupled with the horrific pictures in the newspapers, was unbearable.

Most of the city’s Rwandans were Tutsi and therefore relatives of the victims of the current massacre. There was no way for them to contact their families, and so they waited like the rest of the world for the news. Ironically, while the diplomats fled, the Rwandans living in Nairobi seemed to want to return, driven to find out what had happened to their families.

Within weeks hundreds of Rwandans appeared in Nairobi, many having fled in advance of a massacre they had long anticipated with fear—after all, they had heard the Hutu radio broadcasts for months urging the Hutu to kill their Tutsi neighbors. They settled in slums with relatives, friends, and Rwandans they had met on the streets of Nairobi.

Three Rwandan Jesuit priests were killed with pangas (machetes) at a retreat house in Kigali called the Centre Christus. The murderers separated the Jesuits and the retreatants—mostly priests and sisters—by ethnic group and murdered the Tutsi. Seventeen in all were killed, the very first, it was said, to be massacred in Rwanda.


The rector of the Jesuit theology school in Nairobi, Augustin Karekezi, a soft-spoken Rwandan priest, lost most of his family in Kigali during the same week. Months later Karekezi would return to his country to work at the Centre Christus, replacing his slain Jesuit brothers.

In his book, Christianity and the African Imagination (Paulines Publications Africa, 1996), Father Aylward Shorter, M. Afr., recounts the story of Sister Felicite Niyitegka, a Hutu, aged about 60. She was the director of the Centre Saint Pierre in Gisenyi, where she and her sisters sheltered Tutsi refugees during the genocide. When her brother, a colonel in the army, instructed Felicite to leave immediately in order to escape certain death, she wrote the following letter:

Dearest brother,

Thank you for wanting to help me. I would rather die than abandon the 43 persons for whom I am responsible. Pray for us, that we may come to God. Say “goodbye” to our old mother and our brother. When I come to God, I shall pray for you. Keep well. Thank you for thinking of me. If God saves us, as we hope, we shall see each other tomorrow.

Your sister, Felicite Niyitegka

On April 21, the militia arrived at the center and transported the remaining Tutsis, as well as Felicite and her sisters, to an already-prepared mass grave. They shot to death more than 20 refugees and six of the sisters, leaving Felicite for last.

“I have no more reason to live,” she said, “now that you have killed all of my sisters.”

But for every story of a murdered priest or sister there came rumors, a few later substantiated, of Rwandan priests and sisters who were themselves murderers or who had acted in collusion with the genocidaires. Rwanda, it was often noted, is the most Catholic country in Africa.

At the airport one day, I met a Belgian priest who had worked in Rwanda for 24 years in a small mission parish. We sat on a wooden bench, as dozens of United Nations troops in their robin’s-egg-blue helmets swirled around us. He had been spirited out of his village during the massacres by the Belgian military, after remaining as long as he could.

He told me of the leader of the small Christian community in his parish, who was also the head catechist, the layperson responsible for instructing people in Christianity. This catechist took the lead in killing people in his village. He was an effective organizer of genocide because he knew, thanks to his role in the community, who were Hutu and who were Tutsi (an often difficult distinction to make). So he led the rest of the Hutu in slaughtering his fellow parishioners with pangas.

“This man,” said my priest friend, “who I thought was the best Christian in the village.” He paused and stared sadly at the pale blue helmets that encircled us.

“My life,” he whispered, “has been a waste of time.”

One refugee’s journey

Though we had seen few refugees from outside East Africa, I was not surprised when Kabina Sockor, a refugee from Liberia, turned up on our porch one morning. Some comments offered by the occasional refugee made me realize that the Mikono Centre had become well known in Nairobi.

Kabina was a young man whose story, as he related it, was incredible. His older brother had been an officer in one of the government ministries in Liberia. During a flare-up of political hostilities in Liberia, his brother was abducted by members of a rival party. While Kabina watched, his brother was buried alive with other members of his party.

“We will do the same to you,” they told him, “unless you leave.”

Kabina decided to flee Liberia, leaving behind—as all refugees do—his family, his friends, his job, his home. He first traveled to the Ivory Coast, which borders Liberia, settling there as an official “full status” U.N. refugee. But after lodging with some Liberian refugees for a few months, Kabina heard rumors that Liberian soldiers were searching for him. His friends advised him to get as far away from Liberia as possible. So he left the Ivory Coast by jumping on and off trucks and finally ended up in Kampala, Uganda. But there were no Liberians in Uganda, and Kabina grew lonely and sad.

Kabina also discovered that the U.N. would give him not help in any country other than the Ivory Coast. To discourage refugees from wandering from country to country in search of a better deal, the U.N. grants papers and status forms to refugees only in their first country of asylum. In every other country he was persona non grata.

Eventually Kabina took a truck to Nairobi, where he had heard there were many Liberian refugees and which was far from Liberia and his brother’s killers.

But in Nairobi Kabina found only more misery. There were, in fact, very few refugees from Liberia. He was not permitted to remain legally in the country, and he had absolutely no money. He was begging and scrounging through garbage cans for food.

Kabina reached the end of the story and stared at me with bloodshot eyes. “Is this the place where people can start businesses?” he asked.

He reached into his dirty pants pocket and pulled out a creased photo. It showed him lounging on a concrete floor against a red oxide wall, wearing a pair of orange and green kitenge pants. “I made those pants, Brother,” he said. “And I can make anything. Can I have a sewing machine?”

Unfortunately, the charter of JRS prohibited us from sponsoring refugees without U.N. papers. It was a good rule: It helped only people who were truly refugees. In this case, though, it was working against someone in need who was a real refugee.

But in a striking example of coincidence or God’s providence—depending on one’s beliefs (mine definitely the latter in this case)—we were able to help Kabina.

Stitching together a new life

Mikono Centre had become a clearinghouse and meeting place for the refugees. People taped letters up for one another on outside walls and caught up on news while sitting on the long benches on the porch. Fearful of robberies and lacking storage space in their cramped houses, the refugees also asked us to store things for them: fabric, clothes, wood for carving, straw for baskets.

One day, Adela, a Rwandan refugee who made a living by doing tailoring and mending, appeared at our shop with her Singer 241N sewing machine, heavy table and all. At first I thought it might be broken. It was not.

“Brother,” she said holding her hands out. “My house has been burned down! These thieves have taken everything, and all I have left is my machine!” As other refugees on the benches listened to her story, Adela wept. She had lugged the heavy machine from her house over the muddy fields, a distance of about five kilometers.

“Brother, can I be keeping my machine here until I get a new place?”

It was an easy request to grant. We dragged the heavy machine inside. Adela shook my hand vigorously and said she felt better now that her machine was safe. I agreed to keep it until she found a new flat, or longer if she felt it was still unsafe.

“Maybe others will need it,” Adela said as she left. “They can be using it, too.”

Now someone did. Because we couldn’t sponsor Kabina directly, I asked if he would be willing to make some caps for us with Adela’s machine. We already had dozens of bolts of vividly colored batik fabric—made by two industrious Rwandan women. I brought Kabina into the main showroom; together we selected some suitable fabric. We dragged Adela’s machine out of the little bathroom, which was—owing to piles of small ebony logs and three large bales of straw—now more of a storage room.

Kabina set to work in our backyard under the avocado tree. In a few hours he presented me with three batik kofias (hats). They were all done; I paid him 200 shillings, his first income in weeks.

Thereafter Kabina visited us daily, selected fabric, and sewed for us on Adela’s machine. After a few weeks, he had earned enough money to rent a small flat. After a few months, he was able to purchase his own machine and started doing light tailoring for his neighbors.

When I decided to return home I wanted to give the refugees time to get used to the idea. Their lives were replete with departures, transitory friendships, and impermanence. So a few months before my departure I put up a note on the window of the Mikono Centre in English, Swahili, French, Amharic, Luganda, and Kinyarwanda. It explained the reason for my departure—continuing my studies for ordination in the States—and assured them of the continued support of JRS for them and their businesses.

Posting the note on the window occasioned the expression of good wishes and affection from the refugees. Some brought me notes, some carried gifts, and others brought their children and parents for me to say goodbye to and bless. All of this I was quite unprepared for and found tremendously affecting.

A few days after the note was posted, Brother Michael told me that Kabina Sockor was waiting on the porch to see me.

His face was wet with tears as he entered the small office. I was surprised; not only do African men rarely weep in public, but I also knew that Kabina had had a difficult life—perhaps I expected him to be “tough.” I closed the door.

After he sat down and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, I asked him what was wrong.

“You’re leaving,” he said.

I quickly reassured him, reminding him that Brother Michael would continue to work here and that the Mikono Centre would continue to help him out.

He lowered his head. “No, Brother. You are not understanding.”

And so I again attempted to reassure him. “You know,” I said, “even though things have been difficult for you, people here will take care of you. And you’ve come so far. You’ve got a flat, your own tailoring business. There’s no reason to think that things can’t continue to improve for you.”

“You are still not understanding, Brother,” he said. His head sank and he closed his eyes. Tears dropped onto his jacket.

Kabina reached over and grabbed my arm. We were sitting next to one another, on low wooden chairs with cushions. He turned his damp face to mine.

“You’re my brother,” he said.

And I understood. I understood exactly what he meant. Of course, I had heard the gospel stories where Jesus says that we are all brothers and sisters, that we’re all part of the Body of Christ, that “no man is an island,” and all of that, but I never really understood it before. Now I understood. I was Kabina’s brother. And he was mine. I was responsible for him, to help him out, to be his friend. By virtue of our time together and our concern for one another, we were truly brothers. Now tears filled my own eyes.

“Yes I am. And you’re mine,” I said, finally.

Every day brought new pictures, new reports of slaughter, and more insistent pleas for help from the world community.

One day I watched television footage of the Tutsi refugees in a camp across the Zairian border. I caught the briefest glimpse of a thin, young Rwandan boy huddled under a blanket, the kind of cheap blanket that is sold everywhere in Nairobi, made of multicolored pressed fabric scraps. The kind of blanket, in fact, that I had on my own bed in Nairobi. It was a strange moment; I felt at once painfully separated from the boy and profoundly connected.

So now, a few years after I left Kenya, I still meet the refugees—through different ways. I no longer find them waiting for me by the dozens in the cool Kenyan morning, nor do I jump into my noisy jeep to visit them at home, nor do they flag me down by the side of the dusty roads. Instead, I meet with them in letters, in prayers, and in memory.

A few things I know now that I didn’t then. For one thing, I understand my own struggles broke open my heart and enabled me to connect with the refugees on a deeper level. I suppose that if I had felt completely in control of things, I might not have experienced the love from the refugees so profoundly, nor have been able to love them as fully. In my weakness, then, I was more able, I think, to meet them as brothers and sisters—as friends. “In my weakness I am strong,” said St. Paul. Maybe this is something of what he meant.

It is also clear that the refugees taught me how to love in a new way. One of the challenges of religious life, at least for me, has been learning what chastity means. And I think that it wasn’t until I was in Kenya, spending time with refugees like Kabina Sockor, that I understood how satisfying it can be to love chastely, that is, to love many people with your whole heart and to accept the love that comes freely in return. Come to think of it, that’s the challenge for any sort of life, religious or not.

I also know how connected we remain—still—through the miles and with the passage of time. And I know that if I am connected to my refugee friends thousands of miles away, then I am also connected to the refugee boy huddled under the blanket, that is, to a person I’ve never met. And, if this is true, then I’m connected to everyone else in the world. So this I know.

But I still don’t know why the poor, who work so hard and suffer so much, are often rewarded only by more hardship and pain. I do, though, understand that in confronting these painful experiences during my time in Kenya, I met God. It was in facing hardships that the refugees showed me the value of something else, something good—that is, hope. It was this hope that gave their work such meaning and value, and, I believe, enabled the refugees to push on—pole, pole, as they would say. It was this hope that they passed on to me during my time in East Africa. And the source and ground of this hope, I know, is God.

“The reign of God is like a mustard seed,” said Jesus. “When sown upon the ground it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of all the bushes, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” So while the refugees’ hope is a small thing, perhaps covered by the dirt of genocide and poverty and despair, I also know that it is there, dormant, awaiting water, but always ready to sprout forth with new life.

The refugees with whom I worked still accompany me. I close my eyes and remember them when I pray. I hear their voices, I see their faces, I think of their sorrows and their joys, I remember their hope. And I am very grateful.

This article also appears in the June 2002 issue of U.S. Catholic. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Flickr cc via Trocaire

About the author

James Martin, S.J.

James Martin, S.J. is the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (HarperOne, 2010).

Add comment