Clemantine Wamariya was forced when she was just six years old to flee her country Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. She was a refugee until she landed in America when she was 12. This book is a chronicle of her experiences in many refugee camps and her new life in America.
Although she was adopted by a welcoming family, she did not trust any of them because she had passed through one African nation after another, experiencing kindness and cruelty. She also felt insecure because she feared that her older sister Claire, with whom she had fled Rwanda, would consider her a burden and abandon her.
The book has its share of fairytale moments but is far more introspective. Wamariya admits that she was not the typical poor grateful African refugee. She was bitter and viewed kindness with suspicion. Understandably so, because in her experience neighbors turned on one another for their survival and nobody, not even her sister Claire, showed tenderness and love towards her.
Described from the perspective of a child, the things that happened in Rwanda seem confusing and vague rather than terrifying. Yet, the confusion and lack of clear constants in her life must have been terrifying for Wamariya at that age.
Even in America, she feels a lack of normalcy as she is perceived and categorized as exotic, brave, pitiful, or truant. She cannot relate to the African-American community either.
Although Oprah Winfrey considers Wamariya’s reunion with her parents one of the deepest, most joyful moments of her life, Wamariya herself had mixed emotions about it. She felt relief, joy, and gratitude, but also guilt.
After her appearance in Oprah’s show, Wamariya became popular in the humanitarian community. She helps female refugees from Africa and speaks on human rights issues. She dislikes the words refugee and genocide.
She feels that while ‘genocide’ does not tell you about the individuals who were hurt or lost, ‘refugee’ leads to stereotypes or expectations that don’t allow you to see who someone is. More importantly, when you are in places where many have sought refuge, there is no telling whose refuge story is better or worse.
The book, which Wamariya has co-authored with Elizabeth Weil, is raw and open. It shows you what happens when hate and intolerance towards ‘them’, the people who are not ‘us’, escalates. Hence, it is an extremely important book – one that everyone should read.