I had the pleasure to do a portrait series of refugees last summer. The aim was to show that with the rise of refugees coming to the European shores, integration of people who had to leave their country is possible and there is nothing to be afraid of.
I’m showing this piece that was translated in English as I am one of the 28 finalist of the European Journalist Award on Diversity. Here is the story of Sandrine Gashonga.
Sandrine Gashonga comes from Rwanda, a country ravaged by genocide in the 1990s. Though she managed to quickly flee with her family, her integration into Luxembourg has been a gradual process. Even today she talks little about her past, despite it being part of who she is. It was at the peak of the merciless acts in Rwanda that the Gashonga family grabbed what they could and fled the country. “We lived in the capital Kigali, in a neighbourhood where just outside our building the extremist wing of the Hutu Party was carrying out ruthless acts,” she recalls. “When we learned that the residents in the neighbourhood where my grandparents lived had been massacred, we had no other option but to leave.”
Although Sandrine’s family is Hutu, the ethnic group in power at the time, her father was an activist working to try and bring the two groups together. “Once you turned 17 you could get an identity card and, back then, your ethnicity was indicated on it. My parents insisted I carry an identity card to avoid any problems,” she says. “But the tensions had been so bad for several years that the French secondary school I was at closed down. My mother didn’t want me to go to school anymore, it was too dangerous.” As a result, Sandrine missed out on her education for almost four years. It was during the genocide, in 1994, that the family fled. “We were in a new building, still not connected to a telephone line,” recalls Sandrine. “I don’t know how, but my mother and brother managed to poke a hole through to the apartment above us to illegally connect with the neighbours’ line. This is how we were able to get hold of our brother who was working for the Red Cross and who helped us enormously.” Escorted by a Red Cross van — her brother working for the organisation made things easier — the family first found shelter in a hotel guarded by militiamen you had to pay before you could get in, then by UN peacekeepers.
The family stayed here a month before being escorted, by the French military, to neighbouring Uganda. The family stayed another month here in this refugee camp made up of abandoned houses. “It was a time of uncertainty, we left in a rush,” she says. “Then an aunt on my mother’s side who was living in Italy gave us a lot of help to get to Europe, the Italian associations did a lot.” In total, eight from the Gashonga family fled: the parents, the five children, Sandrine, the youngest of the siblings, and a nephew of hers.
What the former refugee does not immediately mention is that her father didn’t join them for the journey to Europe. He returned to Rwanda to check on the family’s affairs and never came back. “It’s tough, but you have to face facts, after all these years it’s highly likely my father is dead,” says Sandrine. “His health was poor, he probably wouldn’t have survived an imprisonment. We’ll never know. My mother is the one suffering the most, the way things have turned out she can’t grieve.”
A few months to get a status
It was only a few months after arriving in Europe that the good news came: they were granted refugee status in Italy. It was 1996, and after staying with the aunt for a while, the family moved to a shelter. Once they received refugee status, the Gashonga family wanted to get to Belgium, where a large Rwandan community was already living. Although at the time one’s refugee status could be transferred from one country to another, Belgium refused it. “My mother knew some Luxembourgish nuns and through their network with the church, they did a lot to enable us to come to their country,” explains Sandrine.
And so in 1998 the family settled in the Grand Duchy. Her first impressions of Luxembourg? “It was like a fairy tale, with the forts and the descent into the Grund to get to the youth hostel,” she recalls. “And all this, in the middle of winter!” After the youth hostel, the family settled into a government apartment in Differdange, where all the neighbours were also asylum seekers. “Our next-door neighbours were Kosovans, it was really diverse, but there was a great atmosphere. We didn’t speak the same language, but there was a real sense of camaraderie.”
As for education, Sandrine went back to school alongside pupils five years younger than her. After falling years behind in Rwanda, she went back to secondary school in Arlon, then in Longwy and Thionville as a boarder, where she found the French-speaking system easier. She furthered her studies at university in Nancy and Lille. It was here that France’s cumbersome administration presented its own challenges. With her Rwandan passport in hand, but a residence permit indicating an “undetermined” nationality, Sandrine had to ask for an exemption to be able to study in France. She had to queue starting at 3 a.m. at the Prefecture in Lille to obtain her student residence permit.
Becoming a Luxembourger
The young woman then returned to Luxembourg, having made a clear decision to settle here for good. Later, in 2006, Sandrine Gashonga embarked on a career in finance, with a little help from the association for the support of immigrant workers (ASTI), which enabled her to start her working life. Now well integrated in the country, she obtained Luxembourgish nationality. To get this, she had to renounce her Rwandan nationality, as she had started the process before the law on dual nationality. “Integration is an ongoing process throughout your life,” she says. As to language, she notes that this can sometimes be a little confronting: “Even though I understand it, I don’t manage to express myself in Luxembourgish,” she says. “The language tests were less demanding when I was naturalised.”
Today, the young woman has a new career and she’s moving ahead. It’s still difficult for her to tell her story to her friends, who don’t dare ask questions. “Occasionally I’ll wonder if they really know who I am, as it’s a big part of my personality. For example, fireworks really affect me badly, and I’m always anxious about the future,” she explains. “I notice that my work colleagues make their desks their own and bring photos. But I have nothing, as though I could leave tomorrow without leaving a trace. I think I’m quite flexible in that way.”
Does she have any desire to return to Rwanda one day? Not really. “My life is here now. One of my sisters had an identity crisis, she returned but it didn’t go well at all. She was questioned, the people were suspicious, she came back after three months. Today, Rwanda is developing economically, the country is ambitious, but you shouldn’t forget that it’s still a dictatorship,” says Sandrine, adding “I hold onto the survival instinct, you can always rebuild your life somewhere else.”