Conflict & Justice

Fresh from Burundi to America — this man is watching war break out from afar

This story is a part of a series

First Days

This story is a part of a series

First Days

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Raphael Nzirubusa remembers arriving to the United States from Burundi in the early 1990s, when civil war broke out back home. He worried about his family, but stayed to work and support them from abroad. 

Credit:

Yael Even Or

Ever since the unrest in Burundi erupted, Raphael Nzirubusa has anxiously followed the news from New York. This is not the first time he’s forced to watch from afar while turbulent events unfold in his home country.

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The last time Burundi went into civil war was 1993. Nzirubusa has just arrived in the US. He was 24 and determined to get an education in America to help develop his country. But being here while his family suffered from the conflict back home changed his life.

Nzirubusa was mid-way through his masters program in Colorado when, in October of 1993, the majority-Hutu group began to massacre minority-Tutsis, in what was later defined as acts of genocide. Nzirubusa and his family are Tutsis.

“A friend of mine who worked for the embassy at that time, he called me late one night. He said, ‘Raphael there’s a war going on in Burundi, they just killed the president and things are likely to be bad.’”

Nzirubusa could not reach his mother and two sisters for five long days. Meantime, he heard that militia groups were killing Tutsis with machetes on the streets of his hometown. Fortunately, his family was in hiding and was saved.

But as news of war from Burundi continued, Nzirubusa couldn’t help thinking about going back there, despite the risks. “I couldn’t really rationalize what’s the purpose in life if I’m the only one staying and everyone is gone,” he explains. “That was my thinking, not rational. ... I remember going to church and priest is saying, "We’ll pray for you but you’re going to have to stay.’" 

And he did.

Half of Nzirubusa’s extended family was killed and his mother and two sisters ended up in his uncle’s house in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. But the war didn’t come to an end until 2005 and it was extremely difficult for them to survive. When Nzirubusa graduated from his program, he once again faced the dilemma of going back home. He decided to stay and work for the university so he could help his family in Burundi.

“I was sending money for food, I was sending money for clothes, whatever it is they needed," he says. "I stayed because I could support and I did.” 

Today, Nzirubusa works in finance in New York and lives there with his wife and children.