She begged and scrounged for food in the forest; she drank water from a stream with dead bodies in it; she wrapped grass on her feet in order to walk long distances in the hot sun in order to survive, facing starvation and malnourishment, all before the age of six.
Now, Mirreille Twayigira is a licensed medical doctor hoping not just to save lives, but to inspire young women worldwide – particularly those in her same situation – by showing them there’s hope, and that life is more than the tragedies they face.
While some might label her life “a tragic story” due to the suffering and loss she faced as a young child, Twayigira said others might choose to call it “a story of courage and perseverance.”
However, “I choose to call it a story of hope, a story of God…from ashes to beauty, (like) a beautiful stained glass window.”
Twayigira was among several speakers at the March 8 Voices of Faith women’s gathering in the Vatican, marking International Women’s Day.
First held in 2014, the VoF conference was established in response to Pope Francis’ call to “broaden the space within the Church for a more incisive feminine presence.”
Gathering women from around the world, this year’s VoF took place at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, and featured testimonies of women from around the world, including Syria and Burundi, who shared their stories of perseverance, highlighting the importance of building peace in a world filled with conflict.
In her testimony, Twayigira noted that when war broke out between Tutsis and members of the Hutu majority the government, leading to mass killings of the Tutsi tribe, she was just three years-old.
Although she doesn’t remember much about the war itself when it started, she remembers the day she got the news that her father had been killed.
“I remember being told that my father had been killed, his body being brought home wrapped in this blue tent,” she said, noting that she was too young to fully understand what was happening on the day of his burial.
Before the war, “we were a big, happy family. Our house was next to our grandparent’s house, so my sister and I used to spend our days with uncles and aunts…so it was a beautiful and happy childhood,” she said.
After her father’s death, however, this changed dramatically.
“My family knew that it was no longer safe for us, so they had to pack and leave,” she said, explaining that at first, they fled to another district of Rwanda, thinking they would be safe.
However, after just a short time her younger sister, who was just one-year-old at the time, got sick and, because her family didn’t have access to medicine or proper nourishment due to the war, she passed away.
After her sister’s death – which marked the second time she had lost a sibling, since an older sister had died before Twayigira was born – the family fled through Burundi to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“In the camp I was a very happy kid,” she said, “but this all ended when I encountered more loss.”
While in the camp, her mother fell ill and “one night she was gone.” However, Twayigira said that despite the tragic death of her mother, “life had to go move on,” so she and her grandparents continued to move forward.
But just two years later, in 1996, they had to leave because of war in the DRC, which is when “I began to experience a life that is unimaginable,” she said, recalling how she had her grandparents fled the camp with bullets flying over their heads, and took refuge in the forest.
“We only survived by begging for food,” she said. Her grandparents begged from locals in nearby villages, and at times were given moldy bread to eat. When begging wasn’t enough, “we even had to eat roots from the forest.”
“I remember sometimes we had to drink water from rivers with dead bodies floating in it,” she said, noting that their situation had become one of the “survival of the fittest.”
They had long distances to walk going from village to village and in search of another camp, many times walking on rough terrain. When the weather was too hot for their bare feet, they bunched up grass and tied it to their feet in order to be able to walk.
“We escaped death from so many things: from hunger, bullets, drowning, wild animals, you name it. No child should go through what I went through. In fact, nobody should go through what I went through,” she said.
Eventually the family made their way to another refugee camp, “but life would not be better there,” she said. While there were some soldiers protecting them, they would take young boys and train them to fight, and would take girls either as companions for the night or, at times, as wives.
Most of the boys leave refugee camps “with some sort of trauma,” she said, noting that when it came to the girls, some got pregnant, and others were made to be servants.
“The only reason I survived this is because I was very little,” Twayigira said. Due to the ongoing war, she and her grandparents traveled to nearby Angola before eventually ending up back in the DRC for a period of time.
However, with no improvement to the situation and no end to the war in sight, they again made their way to Angola for the second time. But when they arrived, “my grandma was very tired, and as for me, I was very malnourished.”
“You can imagine a big tummy and thin brown hair, and swollen cheeks and feet,” she said, describing herself as a young girl.
Twayigira recalled that her grandmother died shortly before they reached the refugee camp in Angola, and that had they not arrived when they did, “I was also almost gone.”
With just the two of them left, Twayigira explained that her grandfather eventually decided to travel to a different refugee camp in Zambia, because he heard they had a better school.
Despite such a long journey and so much loss, her grandfather moved again for no other reason “than to give his granddaughter a better education,” Twayigira said. She recalled that her grandfather “really believed in me so much. He never once said, ‘she’s just a girl, let me not waste my time on her.’”
After spending a few years in Zambia, the pair decided to make yet one more move, this time heading to a camp in Malawi that had better living conditions and even better schools. They arrived in September 2000.
Twayigira immediately enrolled in school once she arrived, making several new friends and, for the first time since they had left, was happy to have adequate food and shelter.
Being able to do well in her classes “would give me joy. Because at least I got to make some people proud, and I was very happy,” she said. Twayigira was eventually selected to join a Jesuit-run school, with all fees paid for by the Jesuit Refugee Service.
When she finished school in 2007, Twayigira’s grandfather fell ill, passing away just a few days after.
“I cried uncontrollably, badly, but life had to go on, and although I was in so much pain with the loss of my loved ones, it did not stop me from working hard,” she said, “because I knew that my future, it was not certain, I did not know what my future had, but I knew that my hard work would pay off.”
In 2009 she studied for the national final exam in Malawi, and finished among the top 6 students in the country. At the awards ceremony, the Chinese embassy offered a number of full-ride scholarships to study in China for the top students.
Twayigira was one of the students selected and, despite being a refugee with no citizenship status or passport, was able to get her paperwork in order with the help of the Jesuits at her school, a Catholic radio station and even the Malawian parliament.
She then moved to China and studied the language for a year before officially beginning classes in Chinese. She has since graduated and is currently working as a medical intern in Malawi.
While there were many times she wanted to give up along the way, Twayigira said she persisted, because at a certain point she realized that “God spared my life” not to keep it for herself, but because “there are people that I was meant to serve.”
“Before I went to China, I used to think I was just this girl with a tragic past…but when I got to China I realized that I’ve got a story to tell; a story of God and his love, a story that can change somebody’s life.”
As a doctor, Twayigira said she feels she can give even more. But in addition to her medical duties, she also looks for opportunities to speak in schools to try and “raise hope among the youth, especially refugee youth.”
She said that in the future, she hopes to work more directly with refugees, “because I believe I have a lot to share, having gone through what they’ve gone through.”
“Now this is my story…but unfortunately for many, theirs is just in the tragedy part,” she said, explaining that many refugee children don’t even have access to adequate housing let alone higher education.
Even those who do get a good education don’t necessarily have the same opportunities, Twayigira said, so “their hopes are just crushed.”
In order to change the situation, she said war itself has to end: “why not end all this violence, and I’m not talking about people from other countries coming in to invade our own countries, I mean why wait for an outsider to come to stop hurting, and killing?”
“Is the money or power at the expense of their blood really worth it? I don’t think so,” she said, adding that the only way to really resolve conflict is with “forgiveness, mercy and love.”
“Is there such humanity in us, or have we become robots?” she asked. “What is happening to innocent kids is completely unfair, and it needs to stop and I believe it starts from within us: from love, forgiveness and mercy.”
People in situations similar to hers need to know “that they are loved by God and people around them. They need to know that they matter, that there is hope for them, that they have a purpose in life,” she said, noting that this stems not only from having the basic needs met, but above all from education.
In an interview with CNA after her talk, Twayigira stressed the importance of education, saying it’s “really the key to everything, because if not educated, many girls don’t even know their value.”
However, with a good education women learn that “okay, I’m not worthless and someone can’t just come and step on my foot. I am somebody,” she said, adding that a proper education helps women to step into decision making positions where they can change things.
“I believe that once a girl is educated, that means you’re actually educating the whole family. Because a woman, you raise your children, they’re with you all the time, you know that whatever they get is what you teach them,” she said.
“So if a woman is educated that means the whole family will get quality advice from their mothers. So educating a girl is actually educating the whole country.”
Twayigira said she was happy to be able to speak at the Vatican, since the event was streamed live. She voiced her hope that people can hear her story “and not just feel sorry for me, but also see ways they can help other people like me to get a better education or a safe place, or open their homes to refugees like me.”
She said she also hopes other young women and girls from around the world will be able to see and hear her story, and to know that “it’s all possible…I believe that I’m a pillar of hope for them.”
She said one of her hopes coming out of the conference is not only to encourage young women in her situation to have hope, but also that the people who have the power and resources to change things will see that they “can actually do something under-privileged people like I was.”
“Their actions can change somebody’s life for the better, never to be the same,” she said.
By Elise Harris