KIGALI, RWANDA – Brigitte takes a deep breath and smiles as she speaks. Always warm and quick to laugh, it’s clear she loves what she does. As a social worker with IJM Rwanda, Brigitte helps children and their families process trauma and find restoration after sexual violence.
“I give all my time to hear their stories. Telling and sharing is part of healing.”
This month, the world remembers the twenty-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Brigitte survived the violence that devastated her country, and she has seen firsthand the very worst that people can do to one another. She has also seen how people can help one another heal.
Her tone of voice steadies and she chooses her words carefully when asked what she hopes the watching world will see as eyes turn back to her country:
“I would like the world to know that hope is the tree that has grown courage, sacrifice and resilience in Rwanda.”
A Moment of Grace
Brigitte’s memory of the genocide in her nation is sharp. She turned on the radio one April morning to hear that the President’s plane had crashed. The shocking news was interrupted by reports of unrest and warnings to stay home. She and her husband had been married less than year, and she was eight and a half months pregnant.
Later that same morning, men wearing masks and wielding machetes and knives burst through the doors of their small home.
They ordered Brigitte and her husband outside, commanding the newlyweds to lie down and be killed.
Suddenly, a voice cried out.
It was a 15-year-old homeless boy from their neighborhood. Brigette’s husband used to buy him meals and would stop and chat with him.
Though he was with the armed men, the homeless boy begged them to spare the life of this couple, offering his own life in their place. The boy’s courage saved Brigitte and her husband that day.
Raised from Death
In the weeks that followed, 800,000 Rwandans were killed. Entire families were murdered at once, women were systematically raped, and churches became mass gravesites. Neighbors turned on neighbors, and refugees fled the country in droves.
Brigitte gave birth to a baby girl in the midst of the violence and chaos. She named the little girl Anny. The city was running out of food and water, and they subsisted off of porridge. “That was a very difficult moment in my life. How was my baby supposed to survive?”
A couple months later, the same homeless boy who had saved their lives showed up again. He told Brigitte and her husband it was time to leave Rwanda—they were the target of an upcoming attack, and this time he would not be able to stop it. Brigitte strapped two-month-old Anny to her back, and they set out on foot. They walked for more than a week. It was painful and terrifying.
They escaped dangerous roadblocks and finally crossed the border into Congo. Miraculously, Brigitte’s fragile family stayed alive. When she remembers those summer weeks in Congo, she says, “It was there God raised us from death.”
Going Home to Hard Questions
Brigitte and her husband returned to Rwanda on August 13, 1994. It was the day before their one-year wedding anniversary. The destruction of her country and loss in her own family was unfathomable. Half her siblings were killed. Her parents were missing. Her friends and colleagues and neighbors—gone.
“Why did I survive? This was my main question. No one could give me an answer. Two months later I found my dad’s body. He was completely naked—no clothes at all.”
Brigitte felt hollow inside, filled with little but grief and anger. She says, “Life was nothing for me. I stopped going to church because people had been killed in churches by Christians. Christians killed other Christians!”
Over the next few years, Brigitte slowly started sharing her questions with an older man who she views as an uncle. “He took time to listen to me. He would not interrupt me when I started to talk. I realized that talking is good if you have someone who gives you the time.”
Brigitte started praying and attending church again. She did not find all of the answers, but she knew that she was not alone with her questions.
Hearing People Talk
“I decided to give my time to hear people who need to talk,” Brigitte explains. She went back to school to become a social worker. Brigitte joined IJM’s aftercare team in 2008. She counsels children who have survived sexual assaults and helps their families understand their trauma and provide a safe and sustainable home.
Brigitte says the first step in her job is always to show compassion: “They cannot tell their story without compassion.” She develops specialized treatment plans to meet each child’s holistic needs, and she provides trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.
Brigitte challenges herself to keep learning and growing so she can give her clients the best services possible. She got her MBA while working in 2010, so that she could help families start income-generating projects and small businesses.
The Power of Hope
Brigitte knows that healing is a process—for her country, and for the children she works with on a daily basis. Her unique ability to empathize and the trauma-focused training she has received through her work at IJM allows Brigitte to impart hope through her job.
“[After the genocide] it was hard to understand how God let people down like that. But talking to other people helped me to have hope, to look in front of me not behind me, and to be able to say God is always God. To have hope in God.”
She pauses, then continues, “If I’m a survivor, it is God-made.”