The Sunday Edition

He was a young refugee. She was a widowed mother of four. Their unlikely friendship has come full circle

In 1994, Placide Rubabaza fled war-torn Burundi and landed, terrified and alone, at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont. Teacher, mother and refugee activist Patricia Anzovino took him under her wings.
In 1994, Placide Rubabaza fled war-torn Burundi and landed, terrified and alone, at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont. Teacher, mother and refugee activist Patricia Anzovino took him under her wing. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)
Listen26:28

This segment originally aired in February, 2018. It was re-aired on May 12, 2019 after Alisa Siegel's documentary,"Just to Have Had You," was honoured with a Gabriel Award.


In 1994, Placide Rubabaza fled his home in war-torn Burundi, East Africa. He was on the run from the mass killings that would ravage his country and neighbouring Rwanda.

He was just 19 years old — a medical student and the eldest of six siblings. Both his parents were dead.

Early on a cold winter morning, Placide arrived at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont.

It was another world.

The wind howled. The ground was covered in snow. He was completely alone — until he met Patricia Anzovino.

A full-time teacher and mother of four grown children, Patricia was a tireless volunteer and activist, known in Fort Erie as "the refugee lady."

Patricia and Placide at his wedding. '[Patricia] had this sense of believing in me. That means the world.' (Submitted by the family)

She and Placide developed a deep connection. She helped him to start over in Canada and pursue his dreams.

Today, nearly 25 years after they first met, Patricia has dementia and Placide is a successful doctor and father of three.

Alisa Siegel's documentary "Just To Have Had You" takes us through this unlikely pair's remarkable journey of friendship and mutual kindness.

'Keeping a dream alive'

"From the moment that I connected to Patricia," Placide says, "she gave me a sense of" 'You can really become what you want in this country.'"

When he first arrived in Canada, Placide's dream of returning to medical school seemed like a distant fantasy.

Patricia offered a helping hand, driving Placide from one campus to the next, hoping to find a medical school that would recognize his academic credits from Burundi.

When none did, she encouraged him to do a qualifying year of high school.

"You can imagine that it is a very difficult decision to make," Placide says. "To think that you have to go back to high school, it can be humiliating. But I had to do what I had to do."

As a refugee, as an immigrant … you hear so many people telling you that medical school is not in your reach. You get so many stories of discouragement.- Placide Rubabaza

Not long after, the university admission letters started streaming in. Schools that had once rejected him now offered scholarships.

He enrolled in a science program at the University of Ottawa — with the dream of medical school now very much within reach.

Placide made frequent trips back to see Patricia while in Ottawa.

Placide visits Patricia in her long-term care home with his young son. (Submitted by the family)
Patricia wanted Placide to treat her house as it if were his own.

"That was my home," Placide says. "That means that you have a sense of belonging; you have a family. As simple as that. Something that everybody needs."

They cooked meals, talked, went to mass together.

Placide graduated with a degree in biochemistry. And then, the news that he and Patricia had been working toward all along finally arrived in a big white envelope.

"We are happy to inform you..."

"I must have read that first phrase maybe 10 times," Placide says.

"As a refugee, as an immigrant … you hear so many people telling you that medical school is not in your reach. You get so many stories of discouragement."

"[Patricia] had this sense of believing in me. That means the world. And she made the path to medical school possible."

"Keeping a dream alive: that is what Patricia did for me," Placide says. "That is something I think only a parent — a mother — can give you."

I'm grateful just to have had you.- Patricia Anzovino

Ubuntu: 'Always be kind'

Patricia now lives in a long-term care facility in Lindsay, Ont., — just a few kilometres down the road from the family farm where she grew up, and close to her siblings who visit her daily.

From the documentary 'Just To Have Had You' 2:44

She has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Patricia, who spent a lifetime giving and caring for others, now needs to be cared for herself. 

Placide says their connection is as strong as ever.

"The relationship remains the same," he says, "that of a family — of a mother and a son."

To this day, when Placide and Patricia meet, time and distance seem to vanish.

They take each other by the arms, their faces inches apart. And they reminisce about their days together in Fort Erie.

Patricia hangs on Placide's every word, even if she can't recall all the details of the past.

For Placide, caring for Patricia is about more than simply paying back a favour.

Patricia's daughter, Theresa Anzovino, pictured here with her son, Daniel Anzovino. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

"I'm just doing what I would do for any of my family members — what I'd do for my children, what I'd do for my siblings," he says.

"There is no sense whatsoever that Patricia and her family have expected me to pay back anything. That was done purely out of their goodness."

Placide says he saw in Patricia "a sense of humanity that is called ubuntu."

Often translated as "kindness" or "humanity toward others," the literal meaning for the ancient word is "I am, because you are."

"Ubuntu is this philosophical term that embodies kindness, love, goodness to another person," Placide says. "When that is shown to you, it grows deep in you and you can only return that sense of ubuntu.

"I think the lesson I have from this whole experience is to always be kind. I think that's what Patricia has shown me."

Placide refuses to let Patricia's dementia define their relationship. 
Placide and Patricia dance at her birthday party, which coincides with St. Patrick's Day. (Submitted by the family)

"I wish that I could reverse the medical condition that she has now.... It's very sad. But at the same time, Patricia is an accomplished person," he says.

"She has helped tons of people. So I want to really focus on the celebration of her accomplishments."

Despite her dementia, the core of Patricia is very much alive: the kind soul, the generous spirit, the flatterer, the joker, the listener, even the dancer.

"I'm grateful just to have had you," she says to Placide while they sit together on a sofa during one of his usual visits.

"We've had a good life. We've had a good time together. And it continues. It goes on and on and on."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full documentary.