With headphones on, a tall, black fairly lean woman cleans Feinberg Library of Plattsburgh State every weeknight. She often dons her red fleece jacket. Occasionally, she sits in the cushioned chair just outside the door entering the second-floor circulation desk of the library. She has a weighty but unobtrusive air about her. There is a sense of strong work ethic about her too, as she expertly drives the large and noisy hunk of a vacuum around the library’s main lobby.
From this observation, most students wouldn’t know she is a survivor from the 1994 Rwandan genocides, also known as the 100 days of slaughter.
Rose Kirenga, who just turned 67, believed one could write a book to chronicle her childhood. She immigrated to the United States in 1993 alone, leaving her four children and husband behind in Uganda. Kirenga was born in 1950 in Rwanda, the oldest of three. As time progressed toward the genocides, she witnessed the beginning of ethnic tensions within the country.
There were three main tribes in Rwanda—Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. The Hutu made up about 85 percent of the Rwandan population, while the Tutsi minority held the power and authority of state. Twa, the significantly marginalized original inhabitants of Rwanda, were less than one percent of the population. Through European influence, an ethnic divide expanded.
After the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy in 1959, Kirenga fled Rwanda when she was ten years old, as hundreds of Tutsis fled to neighboring countries with her parents and younger brother and sister. Tutsi exiles assembled the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RBF, after invading Rwanda in 1990 to form a peace deal. The deal was agreed upon in 1993.
Kirenga and her family found temporary solace in Congo for five years. She said some people went to Uganda while others retreated to Burundi. Still, the war spread to Congo and then her family moved to Uganda.
“We didn’t really have any place to go,” she said. “Wherever we could hide, we did.”
For several years after their move, coup d’etats were the norm in Rwanda, a Belgian colony until it was granted independence in 1962. From then on, the Tutsis were regarded as scapegoats for social and political problems within the country while the Hutu took over the government once again.
In Uganda, Kirenga met a man originally from Congo. They got married and had four children, two sons and two daughters. Before she left for the States in 1993, Kirenga remembers the heightened tensions and constant power struggle that led the Hutus to begin their violent actions against sharing authority in Rwanda.
“I came to the states by myself,” Kirenga said. “Before I left, my husband and children were back in Uganda. That’s why we survived.” She said, assured that this had been the right decision to make at the time.
She stayed with a family friend, who had married an American man, in Keene Valley, a small town in Essex County — about an hour south of Plattsburgh. She recalled the process of applying for asylum not being difficult at the time because her country’s detrimental conditions.
“After three years,” she said, “I applied for asylum for my children to come here.”
Once her two daughters and younger son emigrated to the states, the four moved to Plattsburgh.
“For the first time in my life, I knew that the world was not fair,” said Monique Kirenga, Rose’s daughter. “The only thing I can say is that it doesn’t matter how good people are to you. Nobody is your mother.”
Monique, 36, was 12 years old when her mother left Uganda for the United States. She remembered praying every night, wishing to see her mother again, not caring if she would die the next day.
“When I first got here (America), I was terrified it was going to happen again,” she said with a laugh.
Rose described how much of a culture shock it was coming to the states, particularly Plattsburgh.
“When you live in Africa, and then you come to America, you think you’re going to heaven. That’s my experience,” she said.
There was a time when her friend, a high school teacher, invited Rose to talk to her students and cook a speciality dish with banana and peanut butter sauce. One of the children had asked her if she wore clothes before she came here.
“Do you think I came here naked?” she remembered replying to the student.
Learning English proved to be another challenge Rose faced, but she liked to read and listen to the conversations of other people to learn common sayings. She also managed with a dear friend after getting a call for an open position at Feinberg Library.
“I met Rose after my first year here, so I’ve been working with Rose five nights a week for 18 years,” said Linda Carpenter, the evening supervisor at Feinberg Library. “When she decided to become a citizen, there were several things that she had to do. She had to learn the Pledge of Allegiance. The students and I would sit in the office and practice with her. It was fun. It was a memorable experience.”
Rose officially retired May 1.
“I’m going to California to stay with my grandchildren, spoil them for a little while,” she said.
Rose’s mother is still in Rwanda, and Rose plans to go see her mother next year. She is aware that it will be shock to see family she hasn’t seen in decades. She believes Rwanda is peaceful now, and the people have learned from their mistakes.
“She’s my best friend,” Monique said with a big grin. “I think that’s the best way to describe it. I tell her everything and nothing. I feel like we have gotten closer and closer with time.”
“I definitely think that one of our most memorable moments with her was when she came back from her daughter’s wedding and she shared the photos,” Carpenter said. “We stayed for an hour and a half after the library was closed, looking at photos she was sharing with me. I am going to miss that quiet presence.”
Email Reggiane Francois at firstname.lastname@example.org