Engineer fled war and racism to find community in Canada

When civil war broke out in 1993, the conflict wasn't unfamiliar to Egide Nzojibwami. Expecting the violence to end as quickly as it had in the past, he brought his then-young family to Belgium to keep them safe, but the war persisted.

Burundian native Egide Nzojibwami fled civil war, studied in Europe and settled in Calgary

Egide Nzojibwami fled his home country of Burundi and settled in Calgary. (Isabelle Bennett)

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 

Since it gained independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been a place of unrest. Ethnic divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis resulted in a hostile atmosphere where everybody knew which group everybody else belonged to.

When civil war broke out in 1993, the conflict wasn't unfamiliar to Egide Nzojibwami. Expecting the violence to end as quickly as it had in the past, he brought his then-young family to Belgium to keep them safe.

But the war persisted, and the Nzojibwamis realized they would not be returning to Burundi.

It was Canada's tolerance and multiculturalism that led the family to immigrate from Europe to Calgary, where Nzojibwami now runs an engineering firm.

Growing up in Burundi

Nzojibwami grew up in a small village in the countryside. As the second oldest in a family with eight children, Nzojibwami helped his mother run their farm until he was old enough to begin school, which was a rare opportunity for native Burundians.

"The Belgians didn't like Indigenous people to go to school," said Nzojibwami. "It happened that my father was a school teacher, so he put all of us, myself and my siblings, through school."

Nzojibwami did so well in school that he was able to earn a scholarship to attend university in Belgium. His dad had passed away during his last year of high school, so university was an opportunity he would not have been able to afford otherwise.

While attending, Nzojibwami said his Belgian professors encouraged him to quit.

"It was just to keep the Indigenous people down as much as possible," he said.

Time to leave

Nevertheless, he finished school and returned to Burundi to work as a university professor. Five years later, the first multi-party election occurred. Hutu President Melchior Ndadaye was elected and then assassinated three months later, sparking the civil war.

"I was dean of the faculty, and the teachers and students could all see it boiling," said Nzojibwami. "They went all the way to kill whoever was educated at that time. They killed a lot of my students."

Even Nzojibwami's oldest daughter, Verlyne Christensen, realized the threat to her safety. She was just 11 years old.

"I remember thinking that I couldn't wait out on the street anymore to be picked up from school," she said. "I had to wait by my classroom where my teacher could see me."

As a result, Nzojibwamis fled to Belgium on a visitor's visa, leaving behind a house, an extended family and good careers in Burundi. Nzojibwami's wife, Beatrice, even had her own televised cooking show.

"We thought in two weeks it would all be finished because it was not the first time we had seen this happen," said Nzojibwami. "People kill each other and then it becomes quiet again."

We just decided to go with hope and faith. We didn't speak English, we knew basically nobody.- Egide Nzojibwami 

But weeks turned into months and the conditions in Burundi worsened. Nzojibwami was able to find work in Belgium at a good engineering company, but soon realized he did not want to stay.

"It was not as multicultural as it is today," said Nzojibwami. "The kids would get insulted in school almost every day. I had my job as an engineer and lots of people thought it had to be a job for a white person.

"They would push my employer to fire me."

Despite the mistreatment, Nzojibwami was grateful to have people in Belgium on his side, like his employer.

"There are good people wherever you go," he said. "I am lucky that he was able to keep me even among the pressure to let me go."

Move to Canada

Unfortunately, those good people were not enough. Nzojibwami had done business in Eastern Canada and felt it would be a better environment to raise his children in.

"We just decided to go with hope and faith. We didn't speak English, we knew basically nobody," Nzojibwami said.

It took 2½ years to go through the application process, but Beatrice said she never considered quitting.

"We had already made up our mind that this is what we wanted for our children," she said.

Determination didn't make it easy.

The family settled in Calgary, but Nzojibwami faced the challenge of finding work.

"I had a doctorate degree in Belgium, but that still wouldn't give me a job because people didn't understand it," Nzojibwami said.

Colyn deGraff, manager of communications at the Calgary Immigrant Education Society, says that's a common issue among immigrants.

"Foreign credential recognition processes are, for various institutional reasons, strict and expensive," he said.

For Nzojibwami, the process involved completing an exam after only being in Canada for three months. Despite limited English experience, he passed and was able to register with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, which regulates engineers in the province.

He completed a master's in civil engineering at the U of C to legitimize his credentials and restarted a company he founded in Burundi: Technosol Engineering.

Some peace at last

Through it all, Nzojibwami was grateful to have his family with him. "Was it a challenge? Yes, but it was a great support to be all together," he said. "Leaving the family behind was never, ever an option."

The family still laughs about the time they were politely greeted when all seven of them walked into a store shortly after arriving. Though insignificant to most Canadians, for the Nzojibwamis it represented acceptance they hadn't felt before.

"There is a sense of community. We are among the most blessed by this experience,"said Nzojibwami.  "This is home and I'm not planning to go anywhere else."