APPLETON — Refugees have been on the minds of many Americans lately, especially as a point of contention between candidates during this presidential election year.
Egide Nimubona knows about the topic; he was a refugee. He fled his home country of Burundi, Africa, 22 years ago.
On Feb. 17, he spoke at St. Pius X Church in Appleton, sponsored by CIA+Faith Mission Operatives. He will present the same topic, “A Lion in the House — A Refugee’s Faith Story of Rescue and Survival,” on Sunday, Feb. 28, 1 p.m., at the St. Francis Xavier High School Fine Arts Theatre.
Nimubona, a member of St. Pius X Parish, lives in Appleton with his wife and two children. He is the founder of the Burundi Education Fund.
Because of movies like “Hotel Rwanda,” most people know about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which resulted in 800,000 deaths. Burundi also has a history of political unrest and ethnic cleansing, with a civil war from 1993 to 2005. Yet the estimated 300,000 there are not as well-known. Many people who fled to refugee camps in surrounding countries were there for years.
In the St. Pius X audience was a group of African refugees, some of whom had lived in those refugee camps for more than 20 years before being able to immigrate to the United States. Nimubona noted that charities such as Catholic Relief Services provided food, medicine and education in the camps.
Referring to the title of his talk, Nimubona said, “The lion is the crisis of refugees. There’s an old Burundian saying, ‘If a lion is already in the house, it’s too late to be afraid.’ You have no choice but to fight and win. I ask you not to be afraid of refugees.”
It’s not easy being a stranger in a strange land, as Nimubona knows. In 1985, he received a scholarship to go to college in the Soviet Union. Six years later, after earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he returned to Burundi. When civil war broke out, he saw “Christians slaughtering Christians. The only place we felt safe was in church for one hour each week.”
In 1994, he obtained a visa to travel to North America. He and his brother planned to escape together.
“My brother left his wife and baby behind,” Nimubona said.
They travelled first to Russia, but “Russia was not welcoming,” said Nimubona. So the pair flew to New York. He said authorities in the U.S. didn’t believe the facts of the killings in Rwanda and Burundi, so they weren’t allowed to stay and ended up in Canada.
There the brothers were welcomed with open arms. He remembers a Canadian immigration officer at Peace Bridge telling him, “You will not have to fear machetes anymore. You can go anywhere in Canada and you’ll be OK.”
Nimubona met his wife, Revocate, a fellow refugee, in Canada and they were married in 1995. After eight years, they were able to move to Wisconsin. Three years ago, his mother moved to Canada to live with the brother who had fled with him.
The refugee issue worldwide has only worsened. Nimubona said that 15 conflicts in the last five years in various countries in the Middle East and Africa that have displaced millions. It’s nothing new in the history of the world, he added.
“I fled at age 29,” Nimubona said. “Today, many children flee their own countries without their parents. I believe Jesus is asking us to do something for the children.”
For Nimubona, the United States offers both “education and unlimited hope for the future.”
Other refugees he’s spoken with recently have said that, before coming to the U.S., they never thought they’d have enough food in their lives.
“Yet here,” he said, “there is abundant food, water, security and when the kids go to school you know they’ll be coming home.”
“The lion is big,” said Nimubona, adding that Americans need to respond to this refugee crisis the way they did for refugees after World War II. He plans to travel to Rwanda and Tanzania next year to visit refugee camps. With him will be a dentist, a hygienist and a nurse from Fox Valley Technical College, where he is employed as a mechanical engineering instructor.
At the conclusion of his talk, someone in the audience asked what they could do to help with this situation.
“Pray for peace,” Nimubona answered. “It takes courage and faith for refugees to flee their countries. Keep the refugees in your prayers. Help feed them by donating to organizations like Catholic Relief Services. They do the heavy lifting.”