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Linda Mah
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Roselyn Nsenga: Honoring Her Heritage

Roselyn Nsenga's Family Escaped Genocide in Rwanda

It was only after moving to Kalamazoo in the eighth grade that Roselyn Nsenga felt the freedom to celebrate who she is.

She is Rwandan.

Her parents are natives of Rwanda, but they fled their home during that country’s bloody genocide in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu sympathizers. It is a conflict that stems back to political strife and tensions that reach back more than a century and continues today.

Nsenga graduated in June from Kalamazoo Central High School. She plans to study medicine at the University of Michigan. She lives in Kalamazoo with her parents and siblings, whom she declined to identify because of continued safety concerns stemming from the political landscape in Rwanda.

Nsenga was born in Kenya but grew up in Malawi. There she hid the fact she was a Rwandan refugee out of fear of persecution.

“I wouldn’t tell my closest friends,” she said. “There were certain stereotypes about refugees in general. Refugees would sometimes start businesses and have them burned down or they’d be jailed. And when you live in a small country like that, it is very homogeneous and there is not a lot of mixing of people from different places in the world.

“When I came here everything was so mixed. Everybody is from somewhere here. I could run down the street and say I was Rwandan and nobody would point a finger at me and I wouldn’t be in danger or at risk of persecution.”

The journey to Kalamazoo was a long one. The family applied for resettlement through the United Nations Commission on Refugees in 1999. They had to wait 12 years before the commission even began investigating their case. Finally, in 2013, they were allowed to move to Kalamazoo where a cousin and her family lived.

“It’s so weird how just all the years before coming here, it was the thing we hoped for most,” she said. “The first few days, you’re awed by the infrastructure, and the cleanliness of the country coming from a third-world country, and just how things work. You’re googly-eyed about everything.

“Then reality starts to set in and you realize how different everything is in good ways and bad ways. The culture is different. It was especially difficult for my parents who had to adjust to the language. Making friends. Learning assimilation. Everything was a new challenge for us.”

When she moved to Kalamazoo, she entered as a student in the eighth-grade at Linden Grove because of her age, but she’d actually completed her secondary education in Malawi. It worked out to her advantage, she said. It gave her time to assimilate into American culture, and in high school she took as many Advanced Placement courses as possible which prepared her for college.

“I’d say there was a struggle to assimilate and find my place in the culture and where I stand, but all of that disappeared through the years,” Nsenga said. “In a district as big as this and in a school as big as Kalamazoo Central there are so many people with so many different backgrounds. Even though you’re from different continents you can relate to others or share experiences or empathize with experiences.”

And through her many teachers and friends such as Marcelina Hernandez-Lopez and Gurleen Dhaliwal, she said she found a home where she could feel safe and free to talk about her family’s past and all of her experiences.

The best thing about being in Kalamazoo has been “the amount of opportunity that is thrown at you,” she said. “Being in Malawi, you didn’t know what the future held or what it would be like in Malawi. But coming here, you discover you have the Promise that pays for your college tuition. You have so many resources that can help you succeed.”

At Central, not only was she an outstanding student, but she participated in Link Crew and the National Honor Society. She volunteered with the program Operation Christmas Child, which sends boxes of gifts to refugee children during the holidays — a program she participated in as a refugee. But, her most memorable extracurricular activity was theater, which she joined after teacher Topher Barrett encouraged her to try after seeing her work in his public speaking class.

“It’s just so refreshing,” Nsenga said. “It’s an environment where you don’t have to chisel away at who you are to fit in or to find your place. Theater essentially tells stories from different perspectives or different people. It teaches a great lesson in empathy.”

Barrett said he knew that theater would be a great place for Nsenga to develop relationships with other students and to share her powerful story.

“Roselyn Nsenga is an old soul: one who sits, listens, and shares about family, faith, and cultural differences,” Barrett said. “She seemed intrigued by performance, and she embodied a serious tone in her speeches for class that displayed an old wisdom. I selfishly wanted to invite and develop that wisdom to impact audiences and to create dynamic stories and performances.”

Now, she is preparing for another new beginning at college. She is looking forward to the new challenges, inspired in part by the story of her family and especially her parents who motivate her with their strength and resilience.

“It amazes me how they had to rebuild and they never backed down,” she said. “They had lives in Rwanda. They were pretty alright, then all of a sudden they lose every single thing and have to rebuild again.”

The story repeated in the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi. They would start over and then lose everything.

“Even when we came here, my dad had to go back to school. It’s just crazy to me how they never gave in — no matter how much life struck them down. Doing all that with the wounds of war and genocide. I look at all they’ve been through and where they are today, and I compare myself to them and think about how much easier I have it, how much opportunity I have.”

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