According to the United Nations’ website, International Women’s Day is “a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.” Here in West Michigan, history is being made every day by ordinary women doing extraordinary things… and we want to share their stories. Today, meet Christine Ingabire -- a brave and passionate woman who’s creating something beautiful with her unique gifts, right here in Grand Rapids.
A World Away
Christine’s story begins half a world away in Rwanda where she was born and raised. “I grew up in Rwanda and as a young girl, I loved to dance. I joined the dance club in elementary school and in high school as well, that is where I learned most of my skills. I
also used to perform during weddings and other Rwandan events,” she says. “Although my mom became sick when I was quite young and passed away, I’ve been told that she loved to dance and also loved kids. I believe this love of dancing and of teaching kids must be in my blood.” Her life was disrupted in the Spring of 1994 when a mass genocide took place over 100 days leaving over 800,000 people dead and approximately 2 million people displaced. Christine, along with her 3 year old son Egide, fled for safety to a refugee camp in Congo. Soon after arriving at the refugee camp, Christine gave birth to another son, Joseph.“When Joseph was 1 month old, we went to Zambia, then we went to Malawi, just trying to find a better life. We got to go back to Zambia, and that’s where we got our refugee assignment to come to Grand Rapids. I arrived in Grand Rapids in October of 2000 with two young boys.”
Resettling in a New Land
When she moved here 17 years ago, Christine didn’t know English. She says the hardest part about making Grand Rapids home was the language. “That’s something you have to fight for,” she said, “to be able to feel like you are within the community. It forces us back to school (like I did). When you try to just stay home and be within your language, then you are stuck right there,” she said.
“I came with some high school education, but I was really feeling like my life was over. I didn’t know where to start. I would apply for jobs, and the next day they would leave messages, but all I would understand was the name of the place where I went to look for a job! Nothing else. It doesn’t mean you are stupid. School for us is hard, but we keep fighting. In 2010 I decided to go back to school again. In 2014, I got my associates degree. I knew I was smart enough. I graduated from Grand Rapids Community College with a 3.8 so I said, ‘Okay, keep going.’ I enrolled in Spring Arbor University, but I thought, ‘I don’t have the money for that.’ But they helped me so I started in March 2015, and in May 2017, everything is done.”
In 2010 Christine also began the Uruyange dance group for Rwandan youth -- preserving Rwandan traditional dance and sharing their culture through event performances around the Midwest. “Fleeing my home country and settling in a new country has not been an easy journey. But keeping up the art form of my home country’s traditional dance has been a wonderful, central part of my life,” she said.
Though resettlement has not been easy, Christine keeps working hard to reach her goals. As a single mom, she has worked multiple jobs, pursued her education, volunteered her time with the dance group, and put her two boys through school -- one soon to earn a Master’s degree in Computer Science and the other holding a steady job. In just a few short months she’ll receive her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work.
Life As a Refugee
We asked Christine to reflect on what life as a refugee means, and her immediate responses directly addressed some commonly-held misconceptions here in the US:
“Nobody wants to be called a refugee, because they think that we are here in America looking for opportunities. I don’t see it that way. We really don’t choose to be refugees. That’s sad, because the first days you come, you just feel like it’s the worst life to live, because you are like, ‘Where am I? What should I do? Where do I go?’ The world should know, being a refugee is not a choice. It’s just life circumstances. We were sent here. Refugees are sent everywhere. That’s the badness of the war. People are in France, in Canada, America, everywhere. It’s random. We don’t know how the system works.” Then she went on to share some more of her personal experience. “First I was sent to Pennsylvania, but then I was told there wasn’t enough housing. So we were sent here [to Grand Rapids]. Otherwise, you don’t choose. If someone had told me to go to Canada, I would have gone. We left Rwanda because of the fighting. We had to leave. We didn’t lock our rooms or our houses, we had to leave. Period. To save ourselves. In the [refugee camp in the] Congo , you could only sleep in a tent if you had a little bit of money. And then the toilet, I can’t even tell you. The people who had a little bit of money, just [paid] and [used] a clean one. It’s just a horrible life, and nobody wants to live that life...Before the war, we didn’t even know what America was, life was good.”
“After 20 years, I was able to go back to Rwanda. I went back home to visit my sister, but it’s like you’re a strange person. People do not recognize you; even looking at where I grew up, I was like, ‘I don’t even remember this place!’ It’s sad to be a refugee. I don’t know when [my boys] will go back home. They say that the people there don’t even know them anyways, and it’s true.”
Calling Grand Rapids Home
For all the challenges Christine and other newcomers face, we asked about what helped to make Grand Rapids feel like home. She was quick to recognize the importance of community and neighbors. When she first arrived in the United States she was able to connect not only with other women from Rwanda, but also women who had lived in Grand Rapids for a long time.
“The person I met through St. Mary’s hospital, her name is Marge. When every refugee gets here, you have to get a health screening, so she worked at the hospital. [Marge] helped me with the kids, and sort of adopted my sons.
One was 5 turning 6 and one was 9 turning 10 and I couldn’t do it on my own. Marge and her family helped to boost us up and help us manage the life of a single mom who had no family members in Grand Rapids or other friends. "There was also Mrs. Laura who invited me to the choir, and there I met Kathy-Jo (at Madison Square Christian Reformed Church). She’s the one who is like a sister now. Sometimes she just calls me, ‘Can we go for ice cream? Can we go for lunch?’ So we just connected like that.”
Today, Christine is putting her soon-to-be-earned social work degree to good use through an internship at Bethany Christian Services, helping refugees resettle into their new homes. She also works for Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Hospital as a Patient Access Representative and for Thresholds Inc. as a Program Aide, assisting people with different disabilities. On most Sunday mornings, she can be found singing in Madison Square Church’s gospel choir and in the afternoons, passing along the Rwandan traditional dance form to the Uruyange dance group in order to share this cultural form with the wider community.
Surrounding Our Community With Gifts
Telling Christine’s story also tells an important story for Treetops Collective. Her story is a snapshot of why we think it’s important to begin uncovering the gifts in our community and build on what’s working well. During the fall of 2016, we heard about a grant from MSU that is dedicated to preserving traditional arts and crafts.
Since we were already familiar with Christine’s work with the Uruyange Rwandan girls dance group, we reached out and helped her apply for the grant. We were thrilled to find out recently that her application was accepted and she’ll be taking on an apprentice this year through the help of this grant.
With endless media controversy and confusion over the real plight of refugees around the world, it’s good to hear stories that ground us again in truth. And it’s amazing to know that we’re surrounded -- right here in West Michigan -- by women who are re-defining their futures and re-shaping our community to become even stronger. This International Women’s Day, join us in honoring the strength of women like Christine who have sacrificed and learned so much to contribute richly to our community and celebrate their “acts of courage and determination.”
For inquiries into booking the dance group at an event, please contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org