Emotional convocation for McGill law grad who escaped Rwandan genocide

Moses Gashirabake, who survived the Rwandan genocide and always dreamed of becoming lawyer, shares his journey of becoming a graduate of McGill's law school.

'It took a lot of dedication, time and courage, and so I'm extremely excited,' says Moses Gashirabake

Moses Gashirabake's 'international mother' and mentor, Prof. Rosemarie Schade, congratulates him on his graduation from McGill law school. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

Moses Gashirabake is a confident, distinguished, sharply dressed 28-year-old who is normally completely composed. 

But after his convocation ceremony at McGill University, with degrees in both civil and common law in his hands, he spotted Rosemarie Schade making her way toward him for a hug and was simply overwhelmed with emotion.

"Over and above being my professor, she ended up being my international mother," Gashirabake said, as he searched for a tissue to wipe away his unexpected tears.

"She played the role of a mother even before my mother came over to Canada, so that is definitely something I remembered, and then tears just started flowing." 

Genocide survivor

Gashirabake, the 10th of 12 children, had always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but the road to graduating from McGill University's law school has been long and difficult.

He was just five when his family escaped from Rwanda in 1994 and started a new life in Kenya.

"I was a lucky survivor of that genocide," he said. "So I grew up as a refugee."

Gashirabake said his older siblings suffered more trauma before leaving Rwanda, but he admits he too has difficult memories.

"Along the streets as we were moving out, [I saw] dead bodies," he said.

"At one point I saw one person being shot, and this person was actually shot by [a person] that was protecting us. How cruel was that?" 

Refugees in Kenya

Gashirabake says in Kenya, his family was economically privileged compared to other refugees, thanks to his father's business connections.

His father owned a transportation company and helped other Rwandans, too. That inspired Gashirabake to volunteer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Kenya.

During that time, he was also scoring top grades in high school and won a scholarship that would have paid his university tuition.

However, the fact that he was not a Kenyan citizen — despite having lived in the country for 13 years  — meant he wasn't eligible to receive that money.

"I was extremely disappointed and sad," he said.

Moses Gashirabake celebrates earning two McGill law degrees with his mother Marguerite and his 'international mother,' Concordia Prof. Rosemarie Schade. (Shari Okeke )

'Blessing in disguise'

"Losing the scholarship became a blessing in disguise because it got me now to look to other opportunities," Gashirabake said.

He won a scholarship to attend University of Pennsylvania in the U.S.

"It's an Ivy League school," he said, but he had no family nearby, and that experience soon turned out to be a lonely one.

"I knew no one. In most of my classes, I would be the only black kid in the class."

After visiting his older sisters in Montreal just two months into his first semester in the U.S., he gave up that scholarship to join them.

"I had to take a leap of faith and move here. I think this is the best decision I've ever made," he said.

Discovering Montreal

Gashirabake said he saw lots of Montrealers who look like him; he liked the mix of French and English in the city, and with his sisters already here, he felt at home.

As a political science student at Concordia University, he started to open up about his life.

"It was one of my professors who encouraged me to share the story in a human rights class," he said.

"The first time I spoke about me being a Rwandan genocide survivor, I cried."

That experience led to several invitations to speak at the Holocaust Memorial in Montreal, he said. 

"So I was going through my academic training but I was also, from a personal perspective, going through healing," he said.

He went "from feeling victimized to actually feeling that I'm contributing."

Gashirabake became a Canadian citizen and got involved in many community initiatives, including creating Concordia Students for Refugees, a group that raised money to sponsor students from refugee camps to come to Concordia to study.

Moses Gashirabake is greeted by Oliver Odira, his best friend from his high school years in Kenya. Odira travelled from Florida to attend Gashirabake's convocation. (Shari Okeke/CBC )

'Almost giving up'

He was thriving in Montreal and then faced a sudden shock in 2012 when his father, still living in Kenya, died after what was supposed to be a routine medical procedure.

"I was almost giving up on moving on to the next step in going to law school," he said.

That's when Rosemarie Schade stepped in.

"She became a counsellor to me," he said. "She mobilized so many people that she knew that would make a difference to come and talk to me and tell me, 'Hey, this is a valley, but soon we'll be on the mountain.'"

Moses Gashirabake with some of the friends, family and mentors who showed up to see him graduate from McGill University with degrees in civil and common law. (Shari Okeke/CBC )

2 mothers

Schade was among the dozens who showed up to witness Gashirabake's graduation and give him a big hug after convocation.

"This is someone who has an incredible strength of character, incredible integrity, incredible spirit and intelligence," she said.

"I'm very proud of being what he calls his 'international mother,'" said Schade.

Marguerite Gashirabake, who joined her son in Montreal just two years ago, was also in the crowd, beaming with pride.

Speaking Kinyarwanda, she said she's extremely happy her son "did a good job in this country."

And he has plans to do much more.

Gashirabake is already working at an international law firm in Montreal and wants to do pro bono work for people who cannot access justice.

"I know what it means to be in a position of need or to be in a position of weakness," he said. "I'm definitely going to do a lot of hours on behalf of the community." .

"When you have hope, and you work hard, and then luckily people come into your life and they push you and they support you ... nothing is impossible."


Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC original podcast.