How a man trying to help child soldiers ended up as a refugee in Calgary
Bulere Sawawawa and his family found a warm reception in city
#yycRefugee is a CBC Calgary online project that captures the stories of people who fled danger — to find a home in Calgary. Their stories can be both harrowing and uplifting.
Bulere Sawasawa says he was very surprised by the welcome he and his family received when they landed in Calgary on July 10, 2013.
There were plenty of hugs — from strangers.
"It's what people in Africa say," states Bulere. "They say Canada, U.S. and Europe are not friendly. But when we reached here, we realized they were wrong. People are really friendly and very, very, very kind ... we feel like this is home."
Home used to be the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa.
But the DRC was the setting of a brutal civil war from 1998 to 2003 — still considered the deadliest war in modern African history.
Years later, peace remains elusive and political corruption remains endemic in the country.
Helping child soldiers be kids again
DRC is where Bulere, a former Coca-Cola sales manager, started an organization called Let's Protect Children. His goal was to stop rebel groups from recruiting children to be soldiers — kids as young as eight.
Let's Protect Children and other programs like it had the support of groups like UNICEF, MONESCO and Save the Children.
Together, they're credited with reuniting some 30,000 child soldiers with their families and returning them to school between 2001 and 2009.
But Bulere's efforts also attracted the attention of rebel factions within the DRC. He says some wanted him to represent their parties in the 2006 election.
Bulere refused. Instead, he ran as an independent but failed to win his seat in DRC's Parliament.
By then, Bulere says it was clear that he was no longer wanted as an ally. He believed his life was in danger after unknown men trashed his home, destroyed his cars and demanded to know his whereabouts.
"I was terrified," says Bulere. "If I stay there, I will die. They will kill me ... they did bad things to my family but I don't talk about this. I don't like talking about it."
On the move
In July of 2009, the United Nations agreed to airlift Bulere out of his hometown of Butembo — and move him to a safe house in the capital city of Kinshasa.
Bulere's wife and eight children followed a few months later. They had little more than the clothes on their backs.
Kinshasa would prove to be no safer, according to Bulere. The UN decided to transfer the family to Kampala, Uganda. There, they began the application process to come to North America as refugees.
"I was ready to go anywhere," says Bulere. "United States or Canada. I didn't know."
Waiting in Uganda
For a French-speaking family, getting a job in English-speaking Uganda was difficult. The family lacked money and food. The older children ended up selling necklaces and trinkets.
Bulere describes the three-year stay in Uganda as a "really bad time."
Eventually, the call came for the family to relocate to Canada. Bulere welcomed the news, even if it meant snow and colder temperatures.
"It's better than hot climate with bullets."
Comfort in Calgary
Bulere's son Meschac lights up when he describes the strangest thing he saw upon arriving in Calgary: the skyscrapers.
"I saw them on TV and the movies," says the 18-year-old. "But this time it was live. Seeing all these designs and the art. It was beautiful but weird."
For his 21-year-old sister, Gracia, the abundance of food is what she remembers.
"I was so hungry," she says. "But seeing a whole chicken, I was so full. Especially coming from a country where people suffer to find food.
"Canada is a country that has everything. Beautiful people with beautiful hearts. People are very generous in Canada."
"I totally understood why we had to leave," says Meschac. "To spare my dad's life. I was thankful I was, at last, living in a place that was peaceful and beautiful and safe. On the other hand, I was shocked because I was leaving my whole family. My aunts, uncles are still over there and I miss them."
Hopes for the future
Three years later, the family has settled into a home. Their Mormon faith connected them to a local church. They have made many friends.
But, for Bulere, learning English is key to fulfilling his dreams in Canada.
"If I'm good at English and French, I can be MP. Why not," smiles Bulere. "If I'm Canadian citizen and can speak two languages, I can be useful to this country."
Bulere says he has been following the plight of Syrian refugees very closely. He wishes the same good fortune will come to them as he has had in Calgary.
"Because I know the effect of war, I understand," says Bulere. "What they're living is what we lived."
And, as great as it is to see countries such as Canada welcome refugees, Bulere says he'd ultimately like to see peace so people don't have to flee their homeland.
"If they can stop the war, that would be better."