Remarkable Refugee

Clementine Msengi, a refugee from Rwanda who survived a war that killed nearly one million people in her country including most of her family, is featured. This program aired in 2005.


Hello, I'm Morgan Halgren. Thanks for joining us for another edition of Living in Iowa.

When human tragedies of epic proportion occur in distant places, it's almost impossible for us to comprehend what has happened. Only those who have survived the devastation fully understand the emotional impact of it all. Clementine Msengi lived through an unimaginable nightmare in Rwanda, and now she's using that firsthand experience to help others in similar situations. In 1994 nearly one million people were killed in a tribal conflict of massive proportions in the African country of Rwanda. This is the only photograph that survivor Clementine Msengi has of her life in Rwanda. Most of her family members were murdered in the struggle.

Clementine: The escape itself is a very long story, but we left just after the war and then we came to U.S. so we are very happy to be safe. What I went through is injustice and conflicts that can arise because of people not understanding each other. I would hope that I could be a part of the solutions and to make the world better, at least to the level I can.

Morgan: Today in Iowa, Clementine is on a much brighter path. But for her, being part of the solution means devoting herself to an organization she created called "Bright Move Network." Its mission is to help eliminate cultural misunderstandings and assist other refugees as they adjust to the American way of life. Clementine draws on the problems she encountered after arriving in the United States in 1995. The first advice she received was to take a job at a local meat packing plant. But Clementine ignored it, opting to continue her education.

Clementine: My biggest struggle was the language and also many other struggles—like transportation. But the biggest is the language. And a lot of my professors and my friends helped me.

Morgan: One of the people who helped Clementine was Associate Professor Dennis Cryer, an advisor at the University of Northern Iowa.

Dennis: As I learned more about Clementine and the horrors that she had experienced—and she has lived through experiences that none of us should ever have to live through. It's a miracle she survived. And then she went on to succeed. She came to the United States knowing three languages. But none of those languages was English. So she had been involved in an intensive English program that we have here at the university.

Morgan: One of Dr. Cryer's first recommendations was for Clementine to become computer literate. But since typing courses are no longer offered at UNI, Clementine was placed in a middle school keyboarding class.

Dennis: I get an e-mail from Clementine two months later. And she says, "Dr. Cryer, you should check out my Web page." She had gone from not being able to type to having a Web page—her own Web page. She's special. She's really special.

Morgan:Eeven though she still struggled with English, Clementine not only graduated from college in three years but also earned the highest grade point average of the students in her health promotion major. Through a UNI-sponsored organization, Global Health Corps, Clementine worked in countries around the world as diverse as Israel and China. Her past experiences and training all led up to implementing the programs of Bright Move Network.

Clementine: The last ten years has been somehow a struggle and also a success somehow. I was helped by many people. So I'm happy to be able to give back to my community what the community has given me.

Morgan: As director, Clementine is a staff of one, with a corps of volunteers. To reduce the culture shock that most refugees suffer, Bright Move Network matches up new arrivals with mentors. Warren George is a former human rights commissioner and teacher who currently mentors a Bosnian refugee, a man who lost his arm in the bomb blast that destroyed his home. That condition adds to the struggles of finding a job, despite living in a community with thousands of other Bosnians.

Warren: He called me last week and said, "Go for coffee?" I said, "Yeah, you bet." He loves to talk about his country and his history and what went on there. He's surprised at how many people haven't a clue what or where Bosnia is. I have asked him, "Well, do you have Bosnian friends you play cards with or socialize with?" And he would say, "No, none." He said no one from his village is living here. The village is the important thing apparently. This family has a hard time with community, even though there's 4,000 Bosnians here. So he spent an awful lot of time isolated.

Morgan: Clementine knows firsthand the trauma, isolation, and loss of support that refugees face.

Clementine: But when they come here, they lose the support structure they had. They lose the cultural—you know, the environment they lived in. Plus, living with the past trauma and loss is very hard. So combining those with the tough life here trying to adjust, it's like a double dose for refugees, I think. It's difficult. That's why a support system when they arrive here is very important.

Morgan: Bright Move Network also supports refugees with education workshops and social gatherings. What better way to exchange cultures than by sharing a meal?

Clementine: It was very special to see all this kind of food from different countries. And we also got to talk and learn new things from each other. It was very nice, kind of a sense of unity to get of the community.

Morgan: As everyone shared food and personal stories from around the world, Cheryl Taylor explained why she became a mentor.

Cheryl: The main thing is that you're a friend. It's a way that we can really make a difference in someone else's life, just helping them acclimate themselves to the Midwest, to Iowa, and to our country. Thanks. It's been really good. I'd encourage you to do it. Thank you.

Morgan: This evening's exchange of cultures continued with storytelling from the U.S., Africa, and Bosnia. Mirsa Rudic came to the United States in 1999 as a refugee after the war in Bosnia. She now helps Clementine with translations and gives talks about Bosnian history, culture and literature.

Mirsa: Through this story, you will see not only Bosnian view of life, values, and beliefs, you will see also... bring to this society knowledge about who we are and what we strive for. Bosnians have many values, very good values. So if we find maybe a way how to bridge our differences, we can find a way to live together and probably will help to make newcomers, including Bosnians, more acceptable, more recognizable as a part of community, and even seeing in them resource, not problems.

Morgan: For her fellow Bosnians, Mirsa translates information about the services of Bright Move Network, an organization Mirsa said she could have used upon first arriving in Waterloo.

Mirsa: When I came, no one was there to help me and tell what to do. So I made many mistakes. They need to know about law, about school system, about access to medical services. They need everything.

Morgan: All newcomers may not need to know the chicken dance which, by the way, originated in Switzerland. But it gave everyone an opportunity to interact. Artwork from around the globe was on display. And up for sale was an ethnic cookbook, a fund-raiser that Li Chuan Chen helped to create. Li is from Taiwan and, like Clementine, studied health promotions at UNI.

Li: She is kind of like a role model to me. When I am, you know, depressed or when I have some frustration and I just thought about her. I think I should work more harder. So the main point for me is she really is emotional support. I thought about her as really an inspiration.

Morgan: Having emerged from the nightmare of Rwanda, Clementine's dream for the future is clear: Work to create a more tolerant and welcoming community, and help heal the deep wounds of her fellow refugees.

Clementine: There is a need. Seeing that need and having a passion for it, having been in the same situation, you know, having the experience of what I'm trying to solve—that drives me. Because I see every day I lived it. And I won't stop until I can see something done about it.

Living in Iowa

Iowa PBS, 2007


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