Glendon Campus
York University
2275 Bayview Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M4N 3M6
A Refugee from Rwanda Finds Home at Glendon


He left everything behind, even his passport, when he got on a bus in his home town, in the Butare district of Central Rwanda. Jean Paul Niyombaza (right) was a law student, the son of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father. His parents had both been killed during the genocide which started in 1994; first his mother, because she was a Tutsi, and later his father, because he was a Hutu. When a close friend warned him in 2002 that the same people who killed his father were looking for him, he got on that bus, hoping to go as far away from Rwanda as possible– as far as South Africa.

But his money only got him to Malawi, a little more than halfway to his original goal. With his excellent knowledge of both French and English, he was able to land a job as interpreter for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In actual fact, Niyombaza speaks six languages: his mother tongue - Kinyarwanda, and three other African languages - Swahili, Shona and Kichewa, in addition to French and English.

“The Jesuit Refugee Services in Malawi helped me a great deal”, says Niyombaza. “They selected those young refugees whom they considered able to succeed in their studies and in settling into a new country. I was lucky enough to be chosen among them.” That organization contacted WUSC – World University Service of Canada - a Canadian international development agency. WUSC is a network of individuals and post-secondary institutions, whose mission is to foster human development and global understanding through education and training. Niyombaza was asked to compile a dossier describing his background and education, which was sent to WUSC’s Canadian headquarters.

This is where the Glendon connection comes in. Dr. Louise Lewin, Associate Principal (Student Services) established a WUSC student refugee program at Glendon with the goal of sponsoring francophone refugees. Lewin worked together with Professor Michael Barutciski, Chair of Glendon’s Multidisciplinary Studies Department, and a specialist in diplomacy, international law and refugee studies. In fact, Barutciski had accompanied a small group of Glendon students in 2005 to Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania, where they spent time with locals and visited UN organizations such as UNHCR, MONUC, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, humanitarian non-governmental organizations, an orphanage and a refugee camp.

With the guidance and collaboration of Professors Lewin and Barutciski, the members of the WUSC group chose to sponsor Jean Paul Niyombaza following a careful examination of many files. “I arrived on the 14th of August 2006 at Toronto’s airport. It had been a bewildering journey. At the transfer point in Germany, I was boarded on a flight that was hours earlier than originally planned. This meant that no one was waiting for me at Pearson, since I arrived 3 hours earlier than originally scheduled. And my baggage, which contained all my belongings, was lost – never to be recovered”, remembers Niyombaza.

But John Wires and Tammy Maclean, two students from Glendon’s WUSC group arrived at the airport on schedule, armed with the documents of Niyombaza’s new identity: his landing card, social insurance number and OHIP card!

“It was August, and all the Canadians around me were wearing shorts and t-shirts and complaining about the heat”, recalls Niyombaza, “while I was wearing a sweater and feeling cold all the time.” It took some time for his body to adjust.

He was welcomed on the Glendon campus, where WUSC provided him with room and board in residence for the duration of the academic year, and covered his school fees. He started classes in Political Science in September, just a few weeks after his arrival.

Now in his second year of living in Canada, Jean Paul is relaxed, ready to talk about his experiences, very much at home. He is currently attending third year and still hopes to become a lawyer, in the area of criminal law. “In Africa, it is the parents who choose their children’s future occupation”, explains Niyombaza. “My father thought that law would be the best profession for me. Our high schools are different from the Canadian ones, because they are streamed in specialized fields right from the start, rather than providing a general education. I had already taken legal courses at that level and I agreed with my father – the law was a good choice for me.”

He is secure enough in his Canadian existence to have moved out of residence to a place of his own, near Glendon. While going to school, Jean Paul holds two jobs to support himself: as a teaching assistant at the Toronto French School – across the road from Glendon – and as a part-time employee of Glendon’s athletic centre, Proctor Field House.

“I like people and I have made many friends”, confides Niyombaza. “People at Glendon
have been very helpful to me. I feel comfortable in Toronto’s multicultural society and I am happy that I don’t have to be afraid any more.” Old fears are hard to overcome. When he had to go to Toronto’s airport to meet someone, he fearfully explored in advance and was amazed that people went wherever they wanted and nobody asked for identification. In Rwanda, airports are among the most dangerous and secretive places. Actually, wherever you go in that country, you need to have your ID card with you and be ready to justify why you are there. These memories, and the memories of the terrible things that Jean Paul has witnessed, will take some time to put to rest. But he is well on his way and grateful to Canada for having accepted him.

And he has reached out to help the next person benefit from a Canadian welcome. With Jean Paul’s collaboration, the Glendon WUSC group has sponsored another refugee, a young Rwandan mathematician whom Niyombaza knew in Malawi. Gilbert Twagirumukiza arrived on August 15th, 2007 and is settling into his studies at Glendon, and his new life in Canada.

This article was submitted to Y File by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on December 6, 2007