Rwandan refugees struggle with trauma 20 years after massacre

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of people in Edmonton still struggle with their memories
Divine Uwmanahoro was only five when she witnessed her brother's murder. (CBC )

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of people in Edmonton still struggle with memories of the massacre.

Divine Uwmanahoro was only five when her seven-year-old brother was killed.

“His name was Innocent. I saw him — they killed him. I was there," she said.

Uwmanahoro’s grandparents were also killed, leaving her alone.  She walked to Congo by herself. It took two years for her family to track her down.

The memory of those days still haunts her.

"Anything can scare me,” she said. “I can't sleep with the light off."

The trauma of those days leaves some people struggling with depression, substance abuse and family problems.

Few seek help because the culture stigmatizes anyone with mental illness, said Lawrence Muganga, vice -president of Rwandan Canadian Community of Edmonton.

"There should be initiatives … to educate people,” he said. “That it's okay. You can get help."

Stigma isn’t the only issue facing newcomers to Edmonton. Refugees have often fled a disturbing and violent political or social situation.

But mainstream mental health services may not help because there are many barriers — language, transportation, child care, the need to work two jobs.

“The problem is that they are not culturally appropriate,” said Karin Linschoten, a senior therapist with the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers

“That the system is not in a way which would be easily accessible for people from other countries.”

Agencies that help newcomers offer specialized therapy but wait times can be as much as five weeks.

As for Uwamanhoro, talking about what happened has helped.

She is enjoying her work in Edmonton and looking forward to her upcoming wedding.

She is determined to honour the memory of her family by making the most of her life.

"I have to do anything to make them proud of me and they don't have to regret why I'm still alive.”

With files from the CBC's Andrea Huncar