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From Burundi to Utah: Cosette’s Story

We’d like you to meet Cosette. Her story is one of courage, resilience, and unfailing optimism. From her childhood in a Rwandan refugee camp, to her family’s struggles in their native Burundi, to her journey to the United States to start a new life, she has consistently met each challenge with strength, conviction, and heart.

A Short History of Burundi

Cosette’s family is originally from Burundi, a small country in East Africa. Most Burundians belong to one of three major ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. The three groups coexisted in relative peace until Germany colonized the region in the late 1890s. European rule exacerbated existing social differences between the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu and contributed to general political unrest across the region. After World War I, the territory was ceded to Belgium, which ruled Burundi and neighboring Rwanda as Ruanda-Urundi. Belgium’s requirement that Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards, along with the elevation of Tutsis to positions of power, helped divide the country into political “haves” and “have nots,” leading to increased hostilities between the two groups.

Burundi finally gained its independence from colonial rule in 1962 and became a constitutional monarchy. A series of assassinations, coups, rebellions, and ethnic-based retaliations led the prime minister to abolish the monarchy and establish a de-facto military republic in 1966. Ongoing unrest from the late 1960s to the early 1970s came to a head in 1972, when the army systematically killed “educated” Hutus over a six-month period. The slaughter, also known as the Burundi Genocide, left an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Hutus dead and another 300,000 people displaced as refugees. In 1976, a bloodless coup brought Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza into power as the country’s new president and de-facto dictator.

In 1987, Major Pierre Buyoya toppled Bagaza’s dictatorial government. Unlike his predecessor, though, Buyoya sought to heal the country’s ethinc rifts, promoting equal representation of Tutsis and Hutus in government and establishing a national commission tasked with strengthening national unity. His progressive leadership led to the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, Burundi’s first multi-party, democratic presidential election in 1993, and the election of the country’s first Hutu president.

The country’s sojourn with democracy was short-lived, however. The new president, Melchior Ndadaye, and his successor, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were both assassinated within the space of a year. Ethnic clashes increased and ushered in a period of civil war that lasted from 1993 to 2005, resulting in the deaths of approximately 300,000 Burundians.

The country appeared to stabilize following a peace agreement in 2000, but strife erupted again in 2015 when the president decided to run for a controversial third term, a move many believed was prohibited by the country’s constitution. Since then, more than 250,000 people have fled Burundi as tensions and acts of violence mount. Opposition militias are mobilizing in neighboring countries, and human rights group are currently warning of a return to civil war and a “second” Burundian genocide.

Cosette’s Interview

Despite continuing unrest and threats of violence in Burundi, Cosette remains upbeat about her country and hopes to return there one day to be with her family and friends. We’ve selected a few excerpts from her interview with Women of the World to share with you. We invite you to listen the entire interview on our podcast.

Can you tell us about your childhood?

“I was born on December 28, 1985, in a refugee camp in Rwanda. My parents left the country in 1980 to save their lives. It was very hard for them to leave their jobs and their home, but they did it and went to Rwanda. They had nothing with them, but they did have their diploma, so they could find work. But my parents decided to go back into Burundi in 1990, so we went back.”

What was it like for your family to return to Burundi after so many years away?

Sourced from Christine Vaufrey,  Flicker .

Sourced from Christine Vaufrey, Flicker.

“Life is not so easy, particularly when you leave all of your stuff behind. Somebody can take over (what you left), and you have to fight to get your stuff back. My parents had many problems looking for a job and somewhere to live, and there was no help. We got a little bit of help from the government, but not very much. Luckily, my parents were able to get a job and start working.”

How did you come to the U.S.?

“Oh, that’s a really long story! (laughs) So, I finished high school in 2004 and got married. I was a teenager and crazy (laughs). In 2006, my (now) ex-husband got a scholarship to China to get a master’s degree. So he went to China, and I went back to college. In 2009, he told me to join him, and I did. We signed up for the lottery to come to the U.S., and we got in on our first try, so that’s how we came to America: me, my ex-husband and our two children. We came first to Alexandria, Virginia. I was so happy!”

What were your biggest challenges when you arrived?

“I didn’t speak any English, I spoke French! I learned English first from watching movies. Then they gave me this website I could use to learn English for my driver’s test, and so I used that website. Nobody was expecting me to pass my test, but I did! People told me, “Oh, you go try it, people try like 10 times to get it, you’ll be fine,” and then I got it on the first try. I surprised them, it was my lucky day (laughs). My ex-husband was waiting for me outside with my son, and he says, “Oh, it’s okay, you can come back again,” and I said. ‘No, I got it,” and he’s like, “No you’re joking,” and I say, “Yeah, I did it.”

How did you come to Utah?

“I had a friend who lives here who said she could find me a job. So I moved to Utah with my children in 2014. I like Utah, it’s a quiet place and I like quiet. I work as a supervisor in a warehouse. I really like that job, you don’t just sit around, you have to be walking around and doing stuff. I told my boss I wanted to work in the warehouse and he said “you have to have muscles,” and I said “I want to do that, I don’t want to be bored.” So he hired me. And when the supervisor position opened up there, I applied and I got it!

I (ultimately) want to be a nurse, so I go to school every evening. I passed my math class (laughs and cheers) so okay, I’m done with math (laughs). So now I’m doing English and psychology. They’re telling me I have to do chemistry, and I hate chemistry, but I will try.”

How has Women of the World helped you?

“Women of the World has helped me a lot. When I wanted to get a divorce, I was wondering how I could get any (child support) from my ex-husband, and they helped me. And any time I have any problem, I come to them. I know I can make some calls, but sometime you think you cannot do it, then you need the support. And when I come to see them, I know everything is okay.

Woman like to keep things inside their hearts, not to share, and I think it’s good to have a place to go, a place you can tell your friends to go to, because you can trust (Women of the World), they will help you. Women need some encouragement, even if it’s just to talk with them. If they can open their heart to you, it really helps them.”

What are your dreams for the future?

“My dream is that my children finish high school, go to college, get PhD (laughs)…So when my children be set and get a job, I will go back home. All my friends are back home. I don’t want to get old here. I want to get old with my friends, talking about our young times. I get a chance to come into this country, it’s a great dream for many people in the world. But I will stay here for my children, work like crazy, give them what I can give them, and let them see if they want to stay here.

You know, your country is your country. I went to visit in 2013, and I’ve really missed my family. I wanted to go again in 2016, and I was telling my mom I wanted to come, and she said, “No, don’t come, there is something going on here, don’t come. If we have to die, we want to know there is someone living from our family.” It’s not easy, not to be able to be with them.”

What advice would you give to women in Burundi about what you’ve learned from living in the U.S.?

“If I go back, I would tell the women in my country to listen to their hearts and maybe try something new. The culture in Burundi says women can’t do that, but if they can open their mind and do it, they cannot give up. I am a free person, and I like to do stuff in my way, and we have some kinds of women like me in my country. If women ask me, I’d say what is the problem with doing this, tell me. If it’s about the culture and nobody is doing it, then I will be the first one doing it (and they can do it, too).”

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