By LEVI PASCHER
GLOVERSVILLE – Grace Rutagengwa witnessed the violence of mass genocide and was put in a suitcase to escape from it.
Now the Rwandan refugee is able to tell her traumatic story to others.
Rutagengwa, 22, spoke to seventh- and eighth-grade students at the Gloversville Middle School auditorium Wednesday about her experience in war-ravaged Rwanda and how it shaped her into the person she is today.
Last week, Rutagengwa spoke to students at Knox Junior High School.
Rutagengwa, who now attends Fulton-Montgomery Community College and plays on the women’s basketball team there, also spoke about her experience before the United Nations.
“The book we are reading in class is about a Vietnam refugee, and we figured this firsthand account of a similar experience would be a great supplement for the kids to understand what both Grace and the character in the book went through,” said Frances LeFever, an eighth-grade English language arts teacher at Gloversville Middle School.
“I want the kids to know that they can learn from my country’s mistake and make sure this doesn’t happen here,” Rutagengwa said.
In 1994, when Rutagengwa was about 2 years old, she was living on a large farm with her family in southern Rwanda. She explained that her family had land and were well educated, but, as Tutsis, they were the minority in the community.
At the farm, her family employed several farmhands who were part of the Hutus, the ethnic majority, and later that spring, ethnic tension came to a tipping point. This resulted in Africa’s worst genocide. killing thousands of people within a few months.
Rutagengwa said within six months, the massacre left 1 million Tutsis dead across Rwanda, including her parents and three siblings, after their Hutu neighbors and farmhands came to their land with machetes and guns.
She explained that despite both Tutsis and Hutus having the same appearance as far as the color of their skin, their height is what made them identifiable. She said those of Tutsi descent are often tall and skinny, while Hutus are known for being short.
She said when the revolt happened, her mother hid her under her skirt so after the violence came to an end, she would be safe and her presence would remain unknown.
“I was a skinny young kid, so she just pulled me under her clothes,” Rutagengwa recalled. “They didn’t even know I was there or alive.”
After the bloodshed, a neighboring woman was walking among the bodies of Rutagengwa’s loved ones and noticed her mother’s dress was moving. Considering how much blood was on the child, the woman wasn’t even sure if Rutagengwa was still alive.
The woman took care of Rutagengwa until her presence was threatening her own life, and she found a way to get Rutagengwa out of the country by concealing her in a large suitcase.
The young, orphaned Rutagengwa would go on to live in overpopulated and unsanitary conditions at refugee camps in the Congo and Burundi, where schooling wasn’t an option.
Eventually, she was given the opportunity to take a test to decide who was smart enough to attend school. She passed and returned to Rwanda for school, where she also devoted her time to the sport of basketball.
She said the sport served as an outlet for her to emotionally escape her traumatic experiences.
“Basketball was my therapist,” Rutagengwa said. “I’d go out in the field to play, and it would get me away from the trauma that still filled in my head.”
Rutagengwa later sought legal damages for the death of her family, but the alleged offenders, she said, found her and injured her. She ended up in a hospital.
While in the hospital, she thought, “If I can get a chance, I will leave this country,” she said.
She eventually was noticed for her talent at basketball and was offered an opportunity to study in America and be a part of the traveling Rwandan team.
However, later, those who gave her the opportunity to study didn’t understand that in Africa, any type of education in her country is known as college, so they told her she would have to return to her country to finish high school first.
While competing in a basketball tournament in New Jersey, Rutagengwa and a teammate, who happened to be a Hutu, decided to escape the hotel and seek political asylum.
She lived for a while with other people, who would keep her secret, in New York City, but eventually, they had to send her away for their own safety. An “arrangement” was made for her to be sent to Johnstown.
She met a student from Africa who was attending Fulton-Montgomery Community College, which has several international students and is known for a strong English-as-a-second-language program and ultimately led her to who she now calls mom.
That person is Robin DeVito. She said when she met Rutagengwa, she wanted to help her out emotionally with all the things she had endured and educationally with the challenge of becoming accustomed to American life.
At first, Rutagengwa would barely speak, let alone talk about her traumatic past, but eventually, she began to open up about the challenges in her life.
She went on to graduate from Duanesburg High School and is presently in her second year at FMCC as a general studies major. She is a member of the basketball team and wants to pursue a career in nursing.
A law firm in New York City worked pro bono to help Rutagengwa secure refugee immigration status, and DeVito is in the process of adopting her.
Today, Rutagengwa is speaking to youths with the hope her tale can inspire and educate others about the discrimination she faced in Rwanda.
At Knox in Johnstown, students in seventh- and eighth-grade English classes have been learning about the refugee experience through the books “A Long Walk to Water” and “Inside Out and Back Again.”
Students were able to make connections to the experiences Rutagengwa shared with the novels and informational texts that were read in class, according to a news release.
“What I can tell you guys is to be patient and have hope,” Rutagengwa told the room full of young faces Wednesday in Gloversville. “If you are struggling, you aren’t alone; the future is good.”