A Mother’s Journey to Freedom
If you attended the Guardian Society Breakfast you heard Balthazar, in just a few minutes, tell his family’s ten year story of their flight from oppression to freedom. If you read our recent newsletter you read about Arnaud, Balthazar’s son, and his life after arriving in the United States and how he came to be working at the St. Vincent Catholic Charities’ Children’s Home after graduating from Hope College. Now, you can read the rest of the chilling story of this family’s journey from Alphonsine, Balthazar’s wife and Arnaud’s mother – a story of a mother’s journey to freedom.
A Story of a Mother’s Journey to Freedom
In 1993 Alphonsine and Balthazar were newly married and living in Burundi with their new baby Arnaud. Burundi is a small country in Africa bordered to the north by Rwanda, the Republic of Congo on the west, and Tanzania on the east. Alphonsine was attending the University studying to be a pharmacist. Balthazar was an engineer and worked at the local television station.
The history of conflict in Burundi, at its roots, is a historic ethnic conflict largely between the Hutu and the Tutsis. Burundian refugees like Alphonsine and Balthazar fled from the ethnic conflict between the ruling, minority Tutsis and the majority population, the Hutu. Alphonsine and Balthazar’s ethnic background is Hutu and they were among the 500,000 who fled from Burundi after the first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated in 1993.
Alphonsine shares that their decision to leave was based on her family’s memories of the persecution and massacre in 1972 where 200,000 were killed in the violence and 150,000 fled to Rwanda, the Republic of Congo, and Tanzania.“When we first left our home we crossed over the border to the Republic of Congo. We still had family members in Burundi and we were close enough to cross back and forth over the border to see family when we thought it was safe. This lasted for three years. It was difficult to live in the Republic of Congo as refugees; housing was hard to find and there was very little in terms of good health care,” shared Alphonsine.
Over time Alphonsine had almost convinced her mother, sisters and brother to leave Burundi. Sadly, Alphonsine’s mother was shot and injured in her flight from the country. For four weeks her mother was in a hospital in Burundi and it looked like she would recover. During this time the trips back and forth across the border became more and more difficult. You can understand Alphonsine’s heartbreak when she learned that her mother had slipped into a coma and passed away a month after having been gunned down in 1994.
They stayed in the Republic of Congo until 1996, when war broke out in the country and they were forced to flee to Tanzania. They believed that going to Tanzania to a newly forming refugee camp would be the right choice for their little family. Their journey would be by boat across Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in Africa and the longest at 418 miles. Crossing the waters of Lake Tanganyika proved to be treacherous. Troops were patrolling the lake looking to stop and kill people who were fleeing to safety.
“Many boats full of people never made it to the shore and safety because of the troopers who patrolled the borders in the middle of the lake. The waters of the lake were also very dangerous, especially for the little boats overflowing with frightened people. It took us a week sitting on the shores of the lake waiting for the right time to go with only the few personal items we could carry. We tried and turned back several times. Then one night the waters were blessedly calm and our journey began. We waded out to the little boat carrying Arnaud in our arms while bullets whizzed above our heads. It took us 15 hours to cross the lake to Tanzania,” continued Alphonsine. The heartbreak of leaving her mother and siblings behind haunted Alphonsine.
Alphonsine, Balthazar and Arnaud would be among the first to make the refugee camp their home but in short order the camp ballooned to 40,000 people. They spent a full day in processing to receive their assigned plot of land, a sheet to make a tent, two cooking pots, one dish, one knife, and one spoon per person, and a bucket for water, plus some corn meal to make a stew. The camp was surrounded by tall grass and trees and the first order of business was to take the knife and cut down some tree branches to begin to build a structure.
“The camp was safe, but it was not safe, there were no guns but soon people were dying from cholera and dysentery. There were also really big dangerous snakes that would slither through the tall grasses into the camp,” shuddered Alphonsine. “I knew that my job was to keep my family safe …so we built a fire to boil our drinking water every day to keep us from getting sick. Everywhere I would go in the camp I would take Arnaud with me on my back or strapped to my chest. I would always tuck my bible, a rosary, and a small wooden cross I had taken from my mother’s home, between me and Arnaud.”
Refugee camp life soon became routine and Alphonsine and Balthazar were part of organizing the camp to improve their quality of life. Arnaud began to go to school on benches under a tree in the middle of the camp. “There were many educated people in the camp and we began to teach our neighbors how to be safe and not to get sick. We organized ourselves. We built churches under the trees. Just using the branches and grasses. By the time six months had gone by the NGOs (non-government organizations) started supporting our efforts by giving us the tools to make bricks to make better shelters, schools, churches,” boasted Alphonsine.
While the culture of the Hutus is largely patriarchal, women in the camp were taking the opportunities to further their education and to make progress, Alphonsine included. She was identified as a leader among the women in the camp and was able to take advantage of opportunities to represent refugees outside of the camp at special events and to play an important role in educating her peers on women’s health issues and representing the refugees in peace talks. After three years in the camp the connections Alphonsine made with people and organizations outside the camp lead to the decision to leave the camp and make a life in Zambia. By this time Arnaud had a sister.
“Over time I came to believe that we couldn’t stay in the camp forever. Especially after I discovered that my sisters and brother were also in the camp. It was so good to be re-united with my family,” she shared. “One day Alphonsine and Balthazar asked permission to go to the local city. It was their plan to leave the camp for good. There was a lady from the United Kingdom who gave them help. “It was scary because we were traveling without any papers, even our children who were all born as refugees had no official status. We took buses, and the train, and stayed in hotels as we made our way from city to city to get to Zambia,” said Alphonsine. “Somehow through the grace of God we made it all the way to Zambia without being stopped to have our papers checked.”
The trip on the train was particularly perilous. It was common for kidnappers to jump on the train when it slowed down with the plan of kidnapping children for ransom. To save money their family split up on the train, Alphonsine and the girls would be in a private berth while Balthazar and Arnaud would sit in seats in a different car. At one point Balthazar and Arnaud made their way to the berth to visit the girls. On their way back to their seats Arnaud ran back to get a toy he had left in the berth. “I had a bad, bad feeling and looked out our door to see Arnaud being held by six big men. I screamed to Arnaud and ran and grabbed him and rushed back to our berth to slam the door shut and lock it. It seemed like forever that the bad men banged on the door. Even today it takes my breath away to think that we almost lost Arnaud,” she shared.
Once in Zambia their little family would thrive as they found a place to live and began to build an entrepreneurial life baking and selling African donuts in the market place and eventually opening a grocery store. After three more years there came a day when the decision was made to leave Zambia. Their little family would split up as Balthazar chose to go to a friend in England Alphonsine would apply for the opportunity to come to America through the USCCB (United States Catholic Conference of Bishops) refugee resettlement program. Alphonsine and her children would make it to Lansing, Michigan before Balthazar.
Being a single parent of three children, a stranger in a strange land, was no easy task. But Alphonsine was determined. She didn’t waste any time getting a job and building a life for herself and her children. Her first job was at Baryames Laundry. Shortly after getting a job Alphonsine started asking about Catholic Schools and learned that the Church of the Resurrection in Lansing had a school that would be close enough for her to get Arnaud enrolled. She was shocked to learn that it would cost money to attend, but without skipping a beat she went out and found a second job as a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) in order to pay for the schooling.
Alphonsine soon made friends with a parent of one of Arnaud’s classmates and there were other African refugee families attending The Church of the Resurrection, and though they came from other countries they shared very common stories.
Today, Alphonsine works at St. Vincent Catholic Charities in the Refugee Services program. She is often the first person that refugees meet when they step off the plane at the Capital City Airport. Alphonsine is known for counseling and encouraging new refugees traumatized by their perilous journey to stop being a victim of their circumstance and to get on with building a new life. “I like to remind them that it is as if an angel plucked you from that terrible life and dropped you here. Now it is your turn to make something of your new life,” exclaimed this determined refugee who was living proof that a new, better life was possible.
Two years after arriving in Lansing Alphonsine and Balthazar were re-united. Balthazar also works at St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Refugee Services. He is a caseworker helping refugees from many parts of the world navigate the systems to get established in this community. Balthazar speaks six languages which makes him a valuable resource and translator for refugees. But it is probably those few no-nonsense words of advice from Alphonsine that they will remember most.