International Call For Freedom Leads To UCalgary

by Mike Fisher

Magazine  |  Fall/Winter 2018  |  International  |  Call for Freedom  

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In a wide Rwandan field, six-year-old Jean-Claude Munyezamu kicked a soccer ball up and down, keeping it aloft with his bare foot.

The ball was made with plastic bags, one inside the other, held with twine. A dirt road led to his village at the edge of the city of Kigali, where the few cars and trucks that visited churned a trail of dust. A few boys straggled to the field’s edge, calling him, eager to play.

Thirteen years later, soon after the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot out of the sky on April 6, 1994, men overran that field, raising machetes high to hack the screaming men, women and children they chased. Bodies began to pile, one upon the other, and, over the weeks and months that followed, the rot raised a stench that sickened 19-year-old Munyezamu when he returned to his homeland in the aftermath of a genocide that still horrifies today. 

More than 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in 100 days. Think about it — that’s a huge portion of Calgary’s population erased, one by one, during springtime. Emotionally, the math is incalculable. 

The frantic butchering of Tutsis, an ethnic minority in Rwanda that includes Munyezamu, was led by another ethnic group, the Hutus. On the day the president died, a history of antagonism between the two groups, already boiling within the context of a previous civil war, fatally erupted. Hutus raged for bloodshed.

Fleeing, moments away from death

“Survivors are those who ran from dogs and machetes, diving into marshes, drinking rain for water, running for their lives,” says Munyezamu today, a determined, humble guy who does widely praised work with his non-profit organization, Soccer Without Boundaries. It provides outreach programs to integrate immigrant and low-income families and children into Calgary communities. “I call myself an escapee, not a survivor. There’s a difference.” 

Months before the genocide, Munyezamu fled Rwanda by crossing a bridge into Tanzania. He hid in a truck’s cargo bed, the smell of raw coffee beans in the sacks piled over him worsening in the heat. When someone climbed the truck’s back, the driver he’d paid to get him across the bridge shouted something, then the tent roof opened. “I’m going to live or I’m going to die,” Munyezamu thought, sucking in his breath, right before the roof shut again. Then the truck lurched forward to freedom. 

Over the next year, he worked as a volunteer at Somali and Sudanese refugee camps, establishing soccer programs for kids living makeshift lives. When the genocide flared, he was in Kenya. Watching it unfold on television, he rushed back to Rwanda. “I returned because I felt guilty and I wanted to do something,” Munyezamu says. “I felt maybe I had been selfish to go.” 

I draw a lot from the work of Soccer Without Boundaries as a ground-up model of violence prevention and community development.

Dr. Régine King, PhD

Associate professor, Faculty of Social Work

Suffering horrors and heartbreak

How many words are there for death? The Rwandan genocide depletes the list.

Before he returned to Kigali, Munyezamu’s aunt, Daphrose, watched her husband, sons and daughters killed with machetes in her Rwandan home. The blood pooling, one of the killers decided to spare her life, preferring, he told Daphrose, that she die of a broken heart. Munyezamu’s brother, Emmanuel, was also slain. Cousins were murdered, some maimed. His sister, Claudine, and her infant child hid in a church, huddling with others before a last-minute rescue by UN peacekeepers. 

Munyezamu found his sister and made volunteer runs from Kenya to Kigali many times more, bringing supplies and ferrying families to safety. 

Years later, he came to Canada, first to Montreal, where he had gained permanent resident status (he was not a refugee), then to Calgary. Today, Munyezamu continues his work helping refugee and immigrant families with his grassroots social programs, himself a married father of three.

Lessons learned invaluable for UCalgary researchers

UCalgary social work and sports program researchers work closely with Munyezamu, relying on him as an invaluable resource for examining a wide range of issues that face newcomers to the city and the country. 

“I draw a lot from the work of Soccer Without Boundaries as a ground-up model of violence prevention and community development,” says Dr. Régine King, PhD, a Faculty of Social Work associate professor who holds a Bachelor of Education degree from the National University of Rwanda. She sits on the federal Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security advising the Ministry of Public Safety and its partners on violence prevention. “The lessons I have learned from Jean-Claude’s programs have been extremely useful in my contribution to the prevention of gang violence and terrorism and refugee resettlement.” 

Simon Barrick, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Kinesiology under the supervision of Dr. William Bridel, PhD, has been involved in a project with WinSport that introduces 200 newcomer children, teens and adults to winter sports programs. “The lessons Jean-Claude has shared with me surrounding the need to design welcoming and sustainable sport programs for newcomers to Canada continues to inform my ongoing research,” he says.

Munyezamu has since returned to Rwanda. These days, this landlocked country has a burgeoning economy and a growing tourism sector. The field where, as a child, he kept a soccer ball aloft with his foot, where his friends called to play, where killers ran with machetes raised — it’s gone, buried under a Kigali suburb. Yet, “in that exact spot,” he says, there is a stark reminder. A national monument stands to honour genocide victims, marking for visitors what he and others can never forget. 

5 boys

During the Rwandan genocide, Munyezamu rescued these five boys and helped reunite them with their families in Kenya. They all now live in Canada.

Jean-Claude in Rwanda, circa 1994

Jean-Claude in Rwanda, circa 1994

Magazine  |  Fall/Winter 2018  |  International  |  Call for Freedom  

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