No girls have been very inspirational like the Wamayira sisters. If you can remember a few years ago on the Oprah Show the two sisters where introduced to the world. Clemantine Wamariya won Oprah's essay contest with her entry, "Why Elie Weisel's Night Is Still Important". They recently appeared on the Oprah Show again as one of the memorable guests.
Clemantine is now in Yale University. While there is no conventional path to Yale, the journey of Clemantine Wamariya ’13 has been particularly arduous. Horrific memories will always haunt Clemantine Wamariya, who was just a 6-year-old child in Rwanda when she says she hid in a banana tree, listening to the screams coming from her grandparents' house as members of her family were murdered. Clemantine and her 16-year-old sister, Claire, were left to fend for themselves. They say they hid for 100 terrifying days and then spent six years in refugee camps across Africa, always holding out hope that their parents survived and they would one day be reunited.
Clemantine and Claire moved to America in 2000. The two sisters continued to search for their parents, contacting the Red Cross, UNICEF and other organizations, but had no success. Then, one day, through a chance meeting at the home of an acquaintance, Clementine and Claire got the news that their mother and father were both alive!
Wamariya has spoken at forums across the country to raise awareness for humanitarian issues through her story recently returning to her home country for the first time with Reach Out, a Yale undergraduate organization that plans international service trips. Before coming to Yale, Wamariya’s activism centered on raising awareness through speaking events, but in the year since coming to Yale, she has taken an even more hands-on approach, working with many different campus and outside groups to help refugees, genocide victims and war survivors.
“We could sit in the library all day and not talk to anyone and get all A’s, but what does it mean?” she said. “I’ve realized that if you’re living your life without helping others, at least for me, then my life is pointless.”
FROM CAMP TO CAMP
Wamariya describes a pleasant childhood in which neighborhood children played dodge ball in the streets and vacations were spent visiting her grandparents’ home in the scenic city of Butare. But Rwanda was in a state of tribal conflict, dating back to its colonial days, when Belgian authorities forced citizens to carry identity cards that characterized them as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Tension between the Hutus and Tutsis manifested itself through various political coups throughout the second half of the 20th century, and the Rwandan Civil War broke out in 1990 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel group, invaded the country from Uganda.
“I did not know at that age what a genocide was or what it meant to kill another person. I grew up with all my neighbors [as] friends,” Wamariya said. “I was very naïve about everything, just like any five- or six-year-old child. I had never heard about a Hutu, a Tutsi or a Twa.”
One day, Hutu-Tutsi conflict erupted in the streets near Wamariya’s house, and she and her sister were forced to leave their home. Wamariya recalled getting picked up early from school as people stormed the streets, banging pots and drums. Through her six-year-old eyes, the event seemed like a celebration. A family friend took her and her sister, then 16, to their grandparents’ house to wait for their parents and two siblings. The house was attacked before her parents arrived, and the two sisters fled by themselves into the maize fields behind the house.
“We were hiding for a very long time, thinking that the screaming and shooting would stop,” Wamariya said. “But it didn’t stop for a very long time, so we decided to keep going. It was very early in the morning when we heard the knocking, and in the cornfield we just kept going, crawling for days and days.”
The first refugee camp they reached was in Burundi. Their journey after that was a complex route of crisscrossing lines through southern Africa. Over the course of seven years, the sisters aged, and Claire got married and had two children. In 2000, Claire was able to arrange for the International Organization for Migration to assist herself, her children and her sister with immigration to the United States.
SPEAKING, STUDYING, APPLYING
After arriving in the U.S., Wamariya was able to enroll in school for the first time since fleeing Rwanda. She began the sixth grade at a small Christian school near her home in Chicago and later attended the New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. While attending the school, in 2006, she won the Oprah Winfrey National High School Essay Contest and received a surprise on the show: a reunion with her parents and other siblings after 12 years.How important that was in her life!!
During high school, Wamariya went on to make two subsequent appearances on the show and to speak to a host of other organizations: religious groups, human rights groups, high schools, universities and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
It was during her speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that Wamariya first met Tom Bernstein , LAW, president of Chelsea Piers and council member for the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Wamariya was one of four speakers to present at the November 2006 opening event for “Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?,” an exhibit of photographs from the Sudanese genocide, presented on the exterior walls of Holocaust Museum in association with the organization DARFUR/DARFUR.
“Clementine spoke of the Rwandan genocide and the world’s need to speak up,” Bernstein said. “I was extraordinarily impressed by what she had to say and her unusual poise and quiet charisma as she spoke.”
In subsequent meetings, Bernstein told Wamariya of his positive experiences at Yale and suggested that it might be a good fit for her. Wamariya was receptive to the idea and ultimately became attracted to the University after discovering pages available in her native language of Kinyarwanda on the Yale website. After applying, she visited Yale and stayed with Oluwadamilola Oladeru ,11, who is from Nigeria.
Wamariya was impressed by the diverse stories and interests of Oladeru and her friends, and decided she would belong at Yale. She completed a postgraduate year at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., before enrolling at Yale as a member of Timothy Dwight College.
Now in her second year at Yale, Wamariya speaks of the need for her fellow Elis to be “weapons for humanity,” to take action to improve the lives of those in need.
Since coming to Yale, she has been active in STAND: the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network, the Yale African Student Association, the Yale Refugee Project and Reach Out. Outside of Yale, Wamariya continues to work with the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Women for Women International.
Through her work in the Yale Refugee Project, she mentors an Iraqi family, helping them with finding work, keeping the bills paid and other facets of daily life. Still, she said her trip to Rwanda inspired her to make a stronger commitment toward the cause of Congolese refugees, who also suffered many hardships that she witnessed during her time at refugees camps. Wamariya has integrated Congolese influences into her modern dance and hip-hop routines as a way to raise cultural awareness, and she plans on becoming involved in the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) of New Haven this semester.
“Even among Yale’s extraordinary undergraduates, Clementine’s life story is one of unusual hardship, unusual courage and unusual determination,” said Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel.
Despite the struggles she encountered in her long route to Yale, Wamariya said she still takes time to appreciate everything she has.
“There are so many people who have lost their families through wars and genocide and hunger. I’m really grateful for my life,” Wamariya said. “I’ve realized that there is a way that life can be simple, that you can be thankful for the hot water, for the streets you walk on, for the rights that you have and for having parents.” For More on the STORY