Making a difference: How a WJ student connects us with Burundi

Stella Hadamer

More stories from Stella Hadamer

WJ Baby Exposé
October 21, 2021
Shiima Nantulya and her mother visit a hospital in Rwanda where they meet a paralyzed boy named Trésor whos story changed Nantulyas life forever. 
(Left to right)
Rwandan nurse, Shiima Nantulya, Tresor, Carine Kaneza , Fabrice.

Photo courtesy of Shiima Nantulya

Shiima Nantulya and her mother visit a hospital in Rwanda where they meet a paralyzed boy named Trésor who’s story changed Nantulya’s life forever. (Left to right) Rwandan nurse, Shiima Nantulya, Tresor, Carine Kaneza , Fabrice.

Seven thousand miles away across the Atlantic, trouble has been brewing in central African country Burundi. Corruption, violence and instability are a daily reality. Recently, things have gone from bad to worse as more and more Burundians flee to neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania. This summer, WJ freshman Shima Nantulya got a first-hand experience of what it’s like at one of the Burundian refugee camps in Rwanda.

This refugee camp, called camp Mahama, is a shelter for over 50,000 Burundian refugees based just outside Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Near the camp there is a community center called the Oasis of Peace, operated by humanitarian activist Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse.

After being chased from their country and losing many friends and family members, refugees come together at the Oasis to celebrate life and learning. This is a place where Burundians find a new sense of family and dignity.

When Nantulya arrived, she and her family were welcomed with singing and dancing. Nantulya was very surprised how people who had lost so much could still find some happiness in their dismal situation.

“I was incredibly touched and so humbled to see the refugees not only welcoming me, but also taking the time to explain Mahama camp. It was an experience I’ll never forget,” Nantulya said.

The Oasis of Peace is not just a shelter for refugees, it is also a place of learning where Burundians may go to school and participate in vocational courses such as culinary classes, sewing, embroidery, painting and even mechanics.

As Nantulya toured camp Mohama and the Oasis, she discovered that the people living there were people just like the rest of us. While the world and the news may view them as refugees without a home, Nantulya found that the reality is much more complex.

Nantulya was visiting the camp with her mother, Carine Kaneza, who is also an activist and has been working with Barankitse for quite a while. Nantulya is very proud of her mother and sees her as one of the bravest women she knows. Although activism is not without its risks.

While Nantulya was in Rwanda, she met a boy named Trésor who had been shot in the back while he was protesting with his best friend Fabrice. This wound paralyzed Trésor from the neck down. Fabrice carried Trésor to safety and brought him to a hospital, saving his life. He has been in a hospital bed ever since, unable to speak. Meeting Trésor was a life changing experience for Nantulya.

“I have never felt so many emotions overtake me than in that moment. I can’t even explain how meeting him changed me,” Nantulya said.

After this eye opening experience, Nantulya wanted to share what she had experienced with students here at WJ, but returning to America was a struggle for her. She wasn’t quite sure what reaction she would get. On the flight back to America, Nantulya asked her mother what she should do.

“Shiima, as long as you believe in yourself and touch at least one person’s life, you’re achieving what you’re setting out to do. Even if you open one pair of eyes, that’s enough,” Kaneza said.

While she didn’t know if anyone here would be sympathetic to her new cause, Nantulya was able to discuss her experiences with many of her classmates and teachers.

“It’s a beautiful idea, it brings hope and it’s to be encouraged and it’s very inspiring,” French teacher Farah Kinani said.

Nantulya has also started an Instagram account dedicated solely to sharing her experience and spreading awareness for the hardships going on in Burundi and Rwanda. She has also given presentations in several clubs at WJ asking them to help her raise money to donate to the Oasis of Peace. But what matters most are her new personal relationships and the way they can inspire us all.

“I made incredible friends at the Oasis. I love them dearly and can’t wait to go back next year to see them,” Nantulya said.