The following story was put together by the Public Affairs Office of Columbia University. Monique, the student featured, is graduating from SIPA today.
Monique Tuyisenge-Onyegbula, 27 years old, has already witnessed four wars in Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been a long journey for Tuyisenge-Onyegbula, who is graduating with a master’s degree from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs this month. Her goal: To help bring peace to communities affected by violence.
Monique Tuyisenge-Onyegbula (center) with her brothers and cousins in Kigali, Rwanda
At the age of 11, Monique and her family were forced to flee from civil war in Rwanda, where she spent most of her childhood, and then lived as a refugee in Cote d’Ivoire, which was also affected by conflict. Years later, she was able to return with her brother to the U.S., where she was born, and served in military operations supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Navy.
“It took me four wars to understand; war is not the answer, machetes are not the answer,” said Tuyisenge-Onyegbula, who earned a bachelor’s degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in 2007. “If we don’t sit down and discuss what we were fighting about we will not be able to keep the peace.”
Born in Michigan, where her parents were students at Andrews University, Tuyisenge-Onyegbula moved back to Rwanda with her family in 1984, when she was a year old. In April 1994, the country descended into a brutal ethnic war between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. More than 800,000 people were killed in less than six months.
Her family fled without passports to Goma, a border town in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire). They lived with two other families in a one-bedroom apartment near a hospital that was overwhelmed with victims of the war in Rwanda.
“I consider myself lucky,” she said. “Although we had to stand in line for food aid, we did not have to live in the refugee camps for long, which became dangerous… But I hit a very low point in Goma, and I lost all hope there.”
As conditions deteriorated, Tuyisenge-Onyegbula’s father arranged for her and her brother, Jeffrey, to travel to Cote d’Ivoire and enroll in a boarding school. Without passports, it took three years for the siblings to establish their U.S. citizenship. Max Church, a close family friend in Michigan, helped secure their birth certificates and establish their American nationality.
For much of this time Tuyisenge-Onyegbula received no communication from her family in Goma and feared the worst. As political tensions in Cote d’Ivoire escalated, she and her brother received their passports and arrived in the U.S. in January 1998.
For two years they lived in Ohio with Church’s son and his family. In 2000, Tuyisenge-Onyegbula was reunited with her family in Delaware—they had escaped to Kenya and passed through Haiti before arriving in the U.S. After completing high school, she enlisted in the navy to put herself through college, and served until January 2006 as an engineering machinist on the U.S.S. Wasp, operating and maintaining steam turbines and reduction gears used for ship propulsion.
During her service, she shared her experiences in Rwanda with her shipmates. “I would literally shake for hours just talking about it, and the shaking would last beyond the conversations,” she said. “I was still bitter.”
After leaving the military, she completed her studies at George Mason in Virginia. While there, she attended an event where she witnessed the first conversations she had seen between Hutus and Tutsis since leaving Rwanda. Deeply moved, she committed herself to working for peace in the region where she grew up.
“I want to help create an instrument of change that can help break the cycle of violence in the Great Lakes region of Africa,” she said. “Ethnic identities are a major cause of the problem. They are mere labels that hinder our conversations. I want to help create peace.”
At Columbia, she studied international security policy and served as president of the SIPA Pan-African Network, coordinating events such as the African Diplomatic Forum and African Economic Forum. Tuyisenge-Onyegbula and her husband are currently expecting their first child. She hopes to return to the workforce after her baby is born, to focus on foreign policy issues with a U.S. government agency, an organization in the Great Lakes region, or a multilateral organization such as the U.N.
“I survived for a reason, I believe. I suffered, but I was spared for some reason too,” she said. “Many friends of mine died from violence or from starvation. I want no child to go through what I experienced.”