I know what it feels like to be forced to flee. For much of my life I was forced to move country-to-country in search of safety – it was generational.
My name is Josee and I was born and raised in Rwanda to Burundian refugee parents. This was where my life began.
My parents were forced to flee Burundi in 1972 due to the civil war, before settling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where my dad pursued a Master’s degree in History funded by UNHCR. My mother met my dad in the DRC, before they both moved to Rwanda in 1978 in search of work, before they had me.
Life in Rwanda was wonderful because I basked in the total love of my parents, but I still wanted to know more about my country of origin. I heard stories from my elders about Burundi, but it was unfortunately only a figment of my imagination until I got the opportunity to visit at the age of 13. My parents were hoping to return home for good as Burundi had become a democratic country and was peaceful. However, civil war broke out while I was there in 1993, marking the first time I experienced war.
We were rescued and taken back to Rwanda, and I remember asking the rescuer:
“Am I now a refugee?”, and the rescuer looked puzzled as to why I wanted to know this.
I explained to him that from the age of 7 I had been bullied by my childhood friends who called me ‘refugee’ as an insult. At that age I didn’t know what a refugee was, so my dad had to explain that being a refugee wasn’t a bad thing, it just meant that you had to flee your country. In Rwanda I spent months getting specialist help trying to recover from the trauma I had experienced and witnessed in Burundi. But I didn’t know that the worst was yet to come.
After being back in Rwanda for a few months, an event now referred to as the Rwandan Genocide began. The place I called home for 13 years of my life, the place where I was meant to feel safe, the place that was supposed to help me recover from what I had experienced in Burundi, turned into a war zone.
We then had to flee to the DRC. Here, we lived in the small house that my dad lived in when he first moved to DRC. As my parents weren’t working there because they were refugees, we had to rely on food, blankets and other essentials provided by UNHCR. I remember feeling so grateful for the help we received.
My family and I settled into life in the DRC. My siblings and I had gone back to a school established by UNHCR for refugees, and we had integrated into our local community.
As with the other countries, we found sanctuary in DRC until it was no longer safe to stay. Unlike the other war zones I had lived in, what I went through in the DRC was something I had never experienced before. I was 16 when the war broke out, and we were forced to flee again. We spent two months walking and rested whenever and wherever we could. We didn’t know where to go – we were just walking aimlessly away from danger to seek refuge anywhere that would accept us. We were almost killed on multiple occasions – people were being shot in front of my eyes.
This journey inspired the front cover of my book, as it features an artist’s depiction of me carrying the white UNHCR tent my family was given.
The oddest part about being forced to flee is that you can wake up in the morning and have a totally normal life, and then in the afternoon you hear gunshots and you’re forced to leave everything you ever knew behind.
Eventually, we ended up in Tanzania where I first experienced life in a refugee camp. After some time there, my dad’s friend offered to take me to Zambia where I could get a better education. As my dad trusted him, he said I could go. Education was so important to him, and to me, that it was vital that I went. However, when I got to Zambia I was forced into marriage at the age of 17 – something neither I nor my dad wanted.
So I fled again. I went to Mozambique and stayed in a refugee camp where I received support from UNHCR, before moving on to South Africa. In South Africa I received protection from UNHCR since my dad was a politician and was participating in peace negotiations in Burundi, which ultimately put me in danger.
After staying in South Africa for some time, we were eventually resettled to The Netherlands in 2001, and were once again assisted by UNHCR. I lived in The Netherlands for 10 years and my children were born there, but raising my children alongside an abusive partner was really difficult.
I eventually found myself living in the UK with my family, where we were welcomed.
Living with the trauma of having experienced war multiple times still wreaks havoc on my mental health. Every time I see people fleeing their homes it brings my trauma back. When the war in Ukraine broke out, I remember not wanting to watch TV. I saw large groups of people fleeing and it reminded me of what I had experienced.
As Africans we fled with our belongings carried on our heads, but as Eastern Europeans they carried their belongings in suitcases and backpacks – but the situation was the same.
Despite my hardships, I’m grateful for UNHCR’s support both when I was fleeing and when I settled. UNHCR has supported me and my family since before I was even born, and I am eternally thankful for that.
To read more about Josee’s story, please visit the website here to purchase her book.
To help UNHCR support refugees like Josee and her family, please donate here.