As a child growing up in Rwanda, Rosemine Mutamuliza had never even heard of New Zealand.
Now a confident, beautiful mother-of-two living in Auckland, Rosemine (35) can’t quite believe how different her life is today – and just how different it would be if she wasn’t one of the lucky ones.
A former refugee, Rosemine was displaced after the brutal Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which as many as 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of only 100 days, following conflict between the country’s two main ethnic groups.
Rosemine, who was 12 at the time, escaped the home she shared with family during the conflict with only her younger sister Tasmine. The young girls were on their own and as far as they knew, the only ones to make it out.
“Wherever you were, people just left,” she remembers.
“How I would describe it is having a lit candle in a room and it is suddenly blown out. Tasmine and I thought we were the only survivors because we didn’t know what had happened to the others.”
The sisters managed to make it to Uganda, and stayed with family friends and in strangers’ homes. Even today, Rosemine can’t bear to discuss escaping the genocide.
“With me saying I don’t talk about my journey, it’s me coming to terms with it within me and learning to live with it,” she explains.
While times were tough, three years later, the sisters – who were still living in Uganda – received some good news from the Red Cross. Their mum Pauline had made it to New Zealand and was looking for them.
“I was in shock, actually,” Rosemine says, shaking her head. “We had learned to raise ourselves really and we find out our mum is alive... Wow.”
Pauline had been resettled as a refugee in New Zealand and had traced her daughters through the Red Cross Restoring Family Links programme.
Nearly two years later, Rosemine and Tasmine were finally reunited with their mother, brother and three sisters in Aotearoa.
“I was overjoyed, to be honest,” she tells. “It was very emotional and there was lots of crying. We had spoken on the phone, but it was just soaking up each other’s presence, which was amazing.
“It was also quite a journey reacquainting with my mum. I went from parenting myself to now having a parent who knew you as a little child.”
In the years since, Rosemine and her family have kept in touch with relatives they’ve rediscovered in Rwanda.
Arriving in New Zealand, Rosemine experienced intense culture shock and had to learn English from scratch. Still, life in New Zealand was, “very quiet, green and spacious. After coming from a smaller place that was very crowded, it was different,” she says.
“But I really liked the cultural vibe.”
And, at the age of 19, she was blessed with more happiness – her first child Tuyi, now 16. Three years later, Doucette (13) followed. They even helped her continue to learn English, with Rosemine watching cartoons alongside the children and using the opportunity to learn.
But perhaps the most crucial aspect of settling in a new country, she says, was finding her calling.
“I really felt strongly about giving back,” she says.
“Holding on to my culture was also really important to me. That grounds me because it’s part of my identity and it’s that whole balance of integration versus assimilation.”
Rosemine went to university to study a Bachelor of Social Practice majoring in community development, and now works as a humanitarian services coordinator for the New Zealand Red Cross, the very organisation that changed her life.
While her own experience is useful in her work, she is quick to point out refugees have all experienced different journeys.
“A refugee is an ordinary person who has experienced extraordinary circumstances,” she explains. “With former refugees, one thing that’s common is resilience.
“You need resilience to have gone through whatever they have gone through, and then come to New Zealand and rebuild a life – that’s astounding,” she asserts.
Rosemine is delighted to be helping people to get settled in New Zealand. “I’m being paid for my passion,” she says.
“It’s absolutely enriching learning about other people’s culture, being invited inside someone’s life and walking alongside them. I just love it!”
The small, but vibrant Rwandan community come together to celebrate their nation’s culture. They also enjoy sharing traditional food.
“One of the best things you can do is bring your food from home! Generosity is shown through the sharing of food and it really brings people together,” tells Rosemine.
The community also takes care to remember the genocide.
“It’s not about condoning what happened, but learning to move forward. And I think, for me, particularly in New Zealand, that’s what I’ve done.”
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