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Claudine Leary, who will speak at the Jesuit Refugee Service 35th Anniversary Awards Dinner Dec. 1 in New York, gives a presentation at a JRS-sponsored event at Regis University in Denver Sept. 30. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Denver) November 23, 2015 — When it was time for Claudine Leary to leave for college, her whole village came out to say goodbye and wish her luck. Few in her family or the tight-knit community in rural Rwanda ever had the opportunity to pursue an education beyond high school. So when Claudine received one of the best university scholarships in the country, everyone shared in her excitement.

“My parents were so, so proud,” Claudine said during a presentation in September at Denver’s Regis University co-sponsored by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. “I experienced true dignity and hope… Everybody came around and said, ‘We knew it. She was always a promising student.’”

But that joyous time in the summer of 1993 was short lived, as neither she nor her family and village foresaw the looming crisis in Rwanda. A devastatingly brutal civil war quickly erupted, forcing her to abandon her academic career after only three months. She soon fled the country and she ended up in a refugee camp in Malawi, separated from her family and the home she never would see her again.

“We had never heard of genocide, and we didn’t know that we were at the dawn of one,” said Claudine of the horrific slaughter of up to one million Rwandans in 1994. 

Claudine in her own words:

Clauidine was eventually reunited with her sister at the camp with the help of the Red Cross. But the despair and hopelessness she felt made life there “the most difficult situation in the world.”

“I was wondering if that promising student would ever get a chance again,” she said. “It was difficult, to say the least. We were (just) glad to be alive.” 

But it was during those dark hours that Claudine received an indispensable ray of hope from a source until then unknown to her – Jesuit Refugee Service. Through JRS she began taking educational classes at the camp, an experience she credits not only with restoring her hope in life but also rekindling aspirations of one day returning to college. 

“Refugees are very wounded, but there were Jesuits,” she said. “I picture the situation like being in a deep hole, in a big deep pit, and suddenly you see people around you (at the top) saying, ‘Hey guys, are you breathing?’ And those were Jesuits.

“Do you know how it feels when you’re down there and someone says, ‘I see you. Wait, I’ll find a rope.’ It’s unbelievable. I love Jesuits. I love Jesuit Refugee Service.”

With the help of JRS Claudine eventually made her way to a college in Zimbabwe and graduated.  “And (my) dignity was regained, and how it was regained!,” she said. 

While initially she never dreamed of moving to the United States, Claudine, now armed with her degree, eventually made her way across the Atlantic and is now the director of annual giving at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

“I have done a lot of things I never would have dreamed of, just because of JRS,” she said. 

Claudine said JRS has inspired her to return the favor and assist others in Africa reach their educational dreams, helping four girls in Rwanda finish high school and paying for her niece’s medical school tuition. 

 “Give credit to JRS… that is a ripple effect,” she said. “I want to do what they do.”

“I am so grateful for everything JRS does, for always being around that hole, for sending ropes so people can reconnect with the very purpose God created them for.”

Claudine Leary will speak about her experiences with Jesuit Refugee Service and her journey from refugee to college graduate during the JRS 35th Anniversary Awards Dinner Dec. 1 in New York.

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