A personal story from Jean Pierre's experience as a refugee how JRS helped to shape not only his early education but now his career.

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An intimate look at how JRS impacted a former refugee's life through education
May 08, 2017

An intimate look at how JRS impacted a former refugee's life through education

An intimate interview with a former refugee on how JRS impacted his life through education

Star lighting up the dark tunnel – The purpose of education

Jean Pierre Ndagijimana was born to Rwandan refugee parents in Congo. His family had been refugees since 1959. He grew up in numerous refugee camps throughout the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Life in refugee camps wasn’t easy, but they were protected and had food, shelter, security and health care. They no longer had to starve or hide in the swamps and bushes. However, Jean Pierre says that provision of these basic needs without education is incomplete. This is where JRS came into his life offering providing education and hope for his future.

Do you remember your first experience with JRS?

Jean Pierre – I had first gone to school in the Congo where there was no JRS. I was actually too young to start school. I was 3 years old. My teacher required me to pass an admission test which was to raise up my right hand and do my best to have my long finger touch my left ear just from the top of my head. The test would tell if I was old enough to start school. I failed the test, but I refused to leave the classroom. He finally accepted me but I walked 25 kilometers each day with no shoes, books, pens or a uniform.

Because of the violent tragedies in the region, I ended up in several refugee camps where there was JRS. This is where my education really started. I remember the pure joy I felt when I went to the JRS office in the camp and was measured for my uniform and was given pens and paper. I jumped for joy knowing I was going to learn.

What was education like in the camp?

Jean Pierre - The JRS refugee education system included nursery, primary and high school and vocational training programs. The churches supported our spirituality and gave us hope. There were opportunities to study in public high schools with the JRS full scholarship. The scholarship included tuition fees, beddings, transportation, pocket money, and everything that could help us perform well, regardless of our refugee status. Surprisingly, most of the time, refugees were the best performers in the schools.

JRS was not simply an organization for me, it was also my other family and were the only parents my school knew about. I had to report my grades from school to the JRS office each semester so they could keep track of how I was doing and visit me personally once every three months.

How important is an education in refugee camps and how is JRS contributing to that role? 

Jean Pierre - Life in a refugee camp is like a dark tunnel, where your eyes are always trying hard to open to see if there would be an end of the tunnel. Parents believed their own and their children’s future was in hands of their children’s education. Educational opportunities in refugee camps were the only thing that guaranteed that my life would be better once I could settle down in a community.

JRS school was also a safe space to avoid enormous dangerous situations. Living in a camp is not always without risk. The JRS educational approach was meaningful and through informal education, it supported numerous clubs in the camps including Anti-HIV/AIDS clubs, Comedy and Theatre, Anti-Gender Based Violence clubs, Sports clubs and Cultural clubs. I learned many lifesaving things at the JRS Multipurpose Hall. The halls were a source of social support to the general community in refugee camps.

How does the education you received from JRS play a role in your life?

Jean Pierre - The JRS values created an educational foundation and gave me support for my values and goals. I am currently a Research Scholar and Visiting Global Fellow at the University of San Francisco (USF) in both the Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach (DECO) and the University Ministry programs. My focus on and off-campus centers around activities for Social Justice with Solidarity in Action Programs which includes providing service for homeless men and women in San Francisco.

Healing, education and the inspiration to be of service to the most vulnerable is what I gained from JRS. The services I provided the last six years in Rwanda before coming to San Francisco focused on helping people heal from effects of extreme violence including the 1994 genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda by helping people reunite and heal. Finding the core values that make up our common ground is critical for a sustainable peace. I co-founded Talk Recovery Training Rwanda with Jody Yeary PhD a project focused on stress regulation training for health. Hopefully, I will be able to continue this effort when I return to Rwanda.

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