Rwanda survivor tells resilient tale in new book, and of being adopted — at 33

Twenty-five years after Irène Nyirawizeye survived the Rwandan genocide — then, an 8-year-old girl fleeing and hiding with her little brother on her back — she says she finally feels liberated now that she's told her story. 

Irène Nyirawizeye's story of survival and suffering doesn't stop with the genocide, but it has a happy ending

Irène Nyirawizeye survived the Rwandan genocide carrying her younger brother on her back. She tells her story in the book, L'improbable destin d'Irène, by Quebec author Sonia Reid. (Radio-Canada)

Twenty-five years ago, Irène Nyirawizeye was eight years old, fleeing the Rwandan genocide and hiding, with her little brother on her back.

It's only today, in 2019, Nyirawizeye says she finally feels liberated now that she's told her story.

Nyirawizeye's tale of suffering didn't end in Rwanda in July 1994, when the 100-day mass slaughter of about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus came to an end.

Despite everything's she's been through, though, Nyirawizeye is able to tell that story from the perspective of someone who triumphed and had help along the way. It's now one with all the makings of a happy ending.

Nowhere to go

Nyirawizeye arrived in Quebec at the age of 12 with three cousins and her adopted sister. When the girls, who were all minors, landed that day in September 1999, the person who was supposed to be there for them never showed up. 

"We didn't know where to go, didn't know what to do. Some passersby called the police, and the police came and took us to a youth hostel," she said this week at the launch of the book that tells her story, L'improbable destin d'Irène, by Quebec author Sonia Reid.

At some points during their escape, Irène Nyirawezeye and her little brother hid in fields before finding an uncle, one of their family's few survivors. (Gérard Julien/Agence France-Presse)

The book recounts how Nyirawizeye lived in Rwanda with her uncle, one of her only surviving family members, in the three or so years after the genocide.

He eventually gathered enough money to send her and the other girls to Canada. Her little brother stayed in Rwanda.

Her uncle thought leaving the country where they had witnessed unimaginable violence would help them move on and build a new life. He also feared a resurgence of ethnic violence.

Struggling with trauma and isolation

In Quebec, after being dropped off at the youth hostel, the girls were taken to the YMCA in Montreal and were eventually sent to live with a host family in Quebec City until Nyirawizeye was 15. 

They then lived in their own apartment while going to school. Nyirawizeye moved to Montreal, where she modelled and attended an adult education school. 

But school wasn't easy. Nyirawizeye felt isolated. She struggled to cope with the trauma she endured, and contemplated suicide. 

She says what stopped her from taking her own life was the thought of her younger brother, still in Rwanda, and the anguish her death would cause him.

Together, they had seen their parents and other siblings' slaughtered bodies. Prompted by their mother, eight-year-old Nyirawizeye and the boy had fled when military officers knocked on their family's door. 

They were stopped by an officer but Nyirawizeye told him they had been "pardoned." He let them hide with a nearby woman for some time, before they were ushered to a cemetery where Tutsis were killed with machetes. 

That's where they saw the bodies of their mother and brother, and sister. Nyirawizeye and her brother were let go. They hid in fields until, finally, they found their uncle.  

"My mother, my little brother and sister, I saw them die. The last memory I have of them is that. Maybe one day I'll have more, but my brain has blocked it," she said.

As Nyirawizeye coped with depression, debt and trouble with school in Quebec, a teacher urged her to seek help from a CLSC clinic. 

Finding a new family

Sister Évelyne, right, took Irène Nyirawizeye under her wing and eventually introduced her to her future adoptive mother, Sylvie Dallaire. (Submitted by Irène Nyirawizeye/Radio-Canada)

She then turned to the Maison Mère-Mallet in Old Quebec City for support. A nun took her under her wing while she studied to become a nurse. 

It's through the nun that Nyirawizeye met Sylvie Dallaire. Dallaire runs the Fondation Famille Jules-Dallaire, a charity named after her late father, a prominent Quebec real estate developer. (Dallaire is not related to Retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire).

"I was impressed by the woman she is — the person she was, her heart. So we decided to help her, to embark on an adventure of helping her," Dallaire said in an interview with Radio-Canada.

Over the years, which included a family trip to Rwanda with Nyirawizeye, Dallaire said she grew to see the Rwandan Quebecer as her daughter.

Philanthropist Sylvie Dallaire says she felt an immediate connection with Irène Nyirawizeye. (Radio-Canada)

In December, Dallaire decided to officially adopt her so that if anything happened to her, Nyirawizeye would be considered part of the family by law. 

Nyirawizeye, at age 33, even took on the family's last name.

"I always searched for family … but I had given up hope," she said. "I didn't know it would be Sylvie's."

Regaining the 'right to live'

Nyirawizeye says the support from her new family made her feel like she "had the right to live." She is now a nurse, entrepreneur and says she'd like to do more work in the mental health field.

Until telling her story in the book, Nyirawizeye says she had worked hard to numb the pain and memories left from Rwanda. 

But the unearthing them "was a therapy," she says. 

Irène Nyirawezeye and the book's author, Sonia Reid, will be at the Salon international du livre de Québec book fair in Quebec City on Sunday, April 14. (Radio-Canada)

"It helped me to open myself to others and for me to realize that I persevered for so long. I didn't have to do it alone," Nyirawizeye said. 

"It was difficult to trust again in humans, to finally say that I don't want these things to define me forever. So it was a liberation."

Irène Nyirawezeye and author Sonia Reid will be at the Salon international du livre de Québec book fair on Sunday, April 14 in Quebec City.

Written by Verity Stevenson. Reporting by CBC Quebec's Kim Garrity and Radio-Canada.


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