FigTree Header 10.14



Review all 2022 Benefit videos

To advertise in print or online
Click here
Share this article
Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Rwandan refugees help Africans and others in Spokane

By Deidre Jacobson

Feeling blessed to have educations, to have survived the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and to be reunited with family since August, Evariste and Christine Mulindangwe dedicate their lives to helping others. 

Mulindangwe family
Kalili, Evelyne, Evariste, David, Christine and Josiane Mulindangwe and Marianne Mukamana.

Evariste, an engineer, works for the City of Spokane with the Water District.  Christine, a nurse, is employed at Alderwood Manor and has a licensed Adult Family Home.

“We try to give back now,” said Evariste, who volunteers with World Relief.  “We are helping 42 refugees from Burundi by providing translation and rides, help with shopping or anything we can.  We feel we have a debt and so we want to serve people in need. They seem to find comfort in our support.  They face so many challenges.”

They can assist with cultural adjustment and translation, because Burundi, which is next to Rwanda, has Hutus and Tutsis and has also experienced civil war.

Less than two years after they came to Spokane in August 2000 as refugees, Evariste and Christine helped form and coordinate activities, assistance and social gatherings for the Africa Support Group, to welcome Africans who are in the area as students, faculty, immigrants and refugees.

When they first came to Spokane, they thought that Christine’s three younger sisters had died in the chaos and slaughter after the genocide in a refugee camp in the Congo.

In 2002, they learned from Voice of America that her family members, Julienne and Marianne—who are twins—and Catherine, were still alive.

In April 1994, the long smoldering struggle for power between Hutu and Tutsi extremists, ethnic groups within Rwanda, escalated into chaos and violence. 

Evariste, Christine and their two children were forced to flee.  Christine and her four younger sisters came together at a refugee camp in the Congo.  Evariste helped another family escape.

“Christine and her sisters were at great risk,” explained Evariste, “because their mother was Tutsi and their father Hutu.”

Evariste and Christine gave some background on the conflict and told of their experiences during the genocide and as refugees.

“The Hutu, the majority of the population, and the Tutsi, the minority and   holders of power, had been in conflict since 1953 when the Hutu gained power by election,” he said.  “The Tutsi leadership fled but continued to attack from neighboring countries. 

“The attacks stopped in 1963 with a period of relative peace,” Evariste continued, “but the fighting wasn’t over.   The rebels organized the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) and invaded from the north from Uganda in 1990.”

In 1993, a peace agreement was signed, setting up power sharing between the Hutu government and the RFP. 

“In spite of the agreement, the RFP were arming themselves within the capital.  The country was in a state of fear,” said Evariste, “because trucks filled with guns were entering the country from the North, at the bidding of the RFP to a protected ‘safe zone,’ within the capital, a provision of the peace agreement.

“In response, Hutu extremists were gathering weapons.  Even ordinary citizens were arming themselves, afraid that the RFP would attack.

“When Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on his return to Rwanda from the signing of a peace agreement, the violence began.”

Extremist Hutu began killing Tutsi and moderate Hutu.  In about 100 days of genocide, about 937,000 people died, according to Reuters. 

Christine, her two children and her four sisters fled to a refugee camp in northern Congo. 

“So many were injured, people were sick and dying, bodies stacked in the streets, to be picked up by garbage trucks,” she said.  “Because I was a nurse, I tried to help people.  We stayed with friends until international relief organizations began to hire nurses.”

Christine and Evariste were separated the day they fled.  Learning he was alive and searching for them, Christine, her children and her sister, Jeanne, joined him in southeastern Congo, which was safer.

“I was afraid for my sisters in the northern refugee camp because the RFP followed people to the camps, searching for militia, but killing citizens,” said Christine.

Hearing there was work in Zambia, Evariste moved there.  Christine, Jeanne and the children followed, but didn’t have enough money to bring Catherine, who was then eight, or the nine-year-old twins.  They hoped to find a home and bring them to Zambia.

Before the Mulindangwes could make arrangements, the northern camp was attacked and everyone fled to the jungle.

The sisters were separated, staying with different groups of refugees.  They walked for days.

“People were sick and dying of malaria.  It was terrifying,” said Marianne.

In Zambia, Christine worked at a Catholic mission hospital and became certified as a registered nurse.  She was offered a job with the Ministry of Health.  There she met Maxine Keogh, a lay missionary from Spokane. 

Maxine helped the family apply for resettlement in the United States.  The process began in 1997 and in 2000 they were resettled in Spokane, moving into a home owned by Maxine’s daughter.

After they heard the sisters were alive, they learned Marianne had been captured and forced to go back to Rwanda and work on a farm.

She had injured her leg fleeing.  When it became infected, she had surgery in Rwanda and was sent to a camp in Kenya for more surgery.  Christine sent money for the operation.

Julienne and Catherine were together, first in a camp in Tanzania and then in Kenya.

In Kenya, the three sisters were united and found help through   Mapendo International, a relief organization with a mission to identify and help individuals and communities in extreme danger, especially widows, orphans, rape victims, torture survivors and genocide targets.

Mapendo provided Julienne, Marianne and Catherine food, medical care and schooling.  They were instrumental in locating Christine and Evariste and began the process of bringing the girls to the United States.   

The sisters arrived in Spokane in July and August 2007.

Marianne is staying with Evariste and Christine, who are in St. Patrick’s Catholic parish.

Julienne and Catherine are in New Hampshire with their sister, Jeanne.  All three are attending school and learning English to earn a GED and attend college.

“We have kept the faith, through it all,” said Christine.  “If anything, it has made our faith stronger.  We don’t understand why we survived when so many have died. 

“We still suffer with nightmares and feelings of fear, even when we know we are safe,” she said, “but it is not our way to talk about what happened.

“So many survivors of the genocide have physical health problems, especially headaches.  You never get over it, you never forget,” she said.

“Marianne was found amidst a pile of dead bodies in a church.  She doesn’t speak of it.  She will tell us things that happened, but wouldn’t open up to others.  It is the way we were raised.”

“We are grateful to have the girls with us,” said Evariste. “There are still people living in the jungle, hiding, because they are afraid to be found.” 

“Even though there is relative peace in Rwanda, people live in fear.  They are still afraid of their neighbors, and anyone can be accused of participating in the genocide and be arrested,” he said.

For information, call 484-9829.