From a Refugee to Global Citizen

In many ways, Octave Hirwa is like many CEMSies: he’s ambitious, intelligent, speaks many languages, is interested in the global community and is highly engaged in responsible leadership practices.

There is one aspect of Hirwa’s path to his graduation this year that makes him unique amongst his CEMS graduating class. Hirwa was born in Kigali, Rwanda. In 1994, he and his family fled the country along with millions of other Rwandans.
Octave Hirwa

This fall, Hirwa will be graduating from CEMS in Sydney. He tells us about his personal journey from refugee to global citizen.

1. Before the war

I have very fond memories of my childhood home, playing with my younger brother and older sister and my many cousins. I guess it was a childhood like many others’, but looking back from where I am now, there are many things that make it feel special. It feels like the sun was always shining back then, and one of my fondest memories was having lunch at home with my mom, dad, brother and sister, which reminds me of how much I hated potatoes when I was a child. I have many cousins and we would meet on weekends and holidays and play together, and I remember how my neighbors liked to come over and play at our place.

I think I was too young to have future aspirations but I remember that before the war started, I had, as many other young boys that age, started to fall in love with football. In the breaks at school or at home before dinner we would be running around imagining being great football stars. My reality was only confined to the people and safe surroundings around me. The furthest I had traveled was to the Lake Kivu, which lies between Rwanda and Congo (then Zaire), where we had a vacation home.

2. Becoming a Refugee

As millions of other Rwandans my family and I fled the country in 1994 when the war started. As a child, having to come to terms with the fact that you’re leaving your home behind and you might never see it again is terrifying. Your whole reality is shattered and you just cling to your parents and other adults for survival. It’s been over 23 years, but I remember how frightened everyone was around me realizing they might never see their loved ones again and the looming certainty of death all around. I can’t imagine anything worse. I remember trying to rationalize and understand why people wanted to kill each other. Why couldn’t we just be friends and play football, I thought.

We initially fled the capital city Kigali with my family, and many of my uncles, aunts and cousins, and went to stay at the lake house where it was still peaceful. But after a couple of weeks, which to me seemed like years, the war spread to the whole country and we had to leave and cross into what was then Zaire (today known as The Republic of the Congo).

It was hell on earth crossing the border to Zaire from Rwanda. The Zairian soldiers would search everyone crossing the border and confiscate money or anything of greater value. Even families who were on foot carrying only clothes and mattresses would be beaten and searched. I remember asking myself what people had done to deserve that. It is incomprehensible what witnessing such atrocity and evil at the age of 6 or 7 does to you.

We managed to settle for a while in Bukavu, Congo, and that was my first experience with learning a foreign language. When I talk to my aunt about those times in the Congo, it always surprises me how short our stay was because in my memory it seems like an eternity. I remember going to school and learning, and finally being able to talk with my local classmates. We were just a handful of Rwandan refugee kids attending that school, and we felt like second-class citizens. Sometimes the local Zairian schoolmates would call us ‘refugees’ or hideous names in their local language. Already at that age you experience the reality of being refugee, a foreigner outside your own country. My sister, cousins and I dreaded going to that school and we would cry to our parents not to send us there. But we had to learn so they had no other choice than to send us, and gradually as the days went by we coped and learned to adapt.

We left the Congo and went to Kenya, which was much further away from our war-torn Rwanda, and there we again had to adapt and learn more new languages. Shortly after we arrived in Kenya, we learned that my father, who had gone back on duty as an army officer, had died in military camp. My mom and I, as the oldest son, had to fly back to Zaire to bury my dad.

At the time, I had no idea of the significance of that event for the future of my siblings and my mom, it was only much later that the reality started to sink in. Luckily, my mom’s sister, her husband and my cousins lived close to us in Nairobi so it still felt like we had a big family. We lived in Nairobi and went to school, and made many friends, and I have many fond memories and old friends that I have reconnected with from there.

After two and a half years in Nairobi, my mom got sick and died of cancer. My single most painful memory is the moment my young brother found out. His reaction will be forever engraved in my memory.

This meant that in an instant, the three of us were not only refugees, but also orphaned refugees. You will have to look hard to find more circumstantially negatively connoted words in the English language. Luckily for the three of us, we still had aunts and uncles who did what they could with what they had to give us a normal life. It is thanks to their efforts that we have become the people we are today.

We then spent a couple of years in Zambia to where a part of our extended family had fled, and then my brother was adopted by my mom’s older brother who had settled in Brussels, and my sister and I by my mom’s older sister who was offered political asylum in Denmark.

3. Finding a Place in the World

In many places, having the title ‘refugee’ almost immediately takes away your dignity and any legal claim to basic human rights. Having lived in the places I have, and seeing how differently people have been and are still being treated, we still have a long way to go as a human race to ensure equal rights for all.

People need to understand that no refugee becomes a refugee out of their own free will. It seems like as soon as someone is labeled a refugee, they instantly become stigmatized. And in many places around the world this leads to mysophobia, people are scared of getting too close, as if “refugeeness” is contagious.

I was lucky enough to spend my second childhood and teenage years in a safe small town in Kalundborg, Denmark, where, even as a child refugee, I made many friends who took to me as their own and came to love me as the individual I was. I felt an integral part of the classroom, and local football team or the group of friends in high school, and this has given me an extra sense of belonging. A sense of belonging which is so vital, which young people, not only refugees, need when they are growing up and trying to find their place in the world.

4. Becoming a global citizen

After high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study but I knew that I would eventually start to. My aunt and older sister really encouraged me to apply for university, but I felt that I needed to travel before starting at university. I took a couple of gap years and worked and traveled with my best friend. Copenhagen Business School (CBS) to me seemed like the natural choice, given the international orientation and focus on culture and languages in several of the BSc’s the school offers. I have really enjoyed my time at CBS and been involved in many activities in and around the school, which has helped me mature and develop in many aspects.

I had just had an amazing exchange semester at HEC Montreal where I met great people from all walks of life, and was looking to have the same experience again. CEMS to me at that time seemed to encompass it all, and I was so happy getting in to the programme once again being fortunate enough to dive into the experiences that so many different cultures brought together. You just get so humbled when you meet so many beautiful and talented people from all over the world.

Most CEMS students get the opportunity to study in countries with significantly distinct cultures from their own. It is, in many cases, the openness and resourcefulness of the host school and its local students that makes the CEMS experience. The beauty and uniqueness of CEMS is having so many open-minded driven young people from so many different cultures. In my opinion, the cultural exchange is the single most unique thing about CEMS.

5. Getting involved

Anyone willing can help, not only refugees, but also the many newcomers relocating to the many cities around the world. There are centers in almost every city where you can volunteer to teach your language, become a buddy with a refugee your age, go to a refugee center and play with the kids. Each individual person can help make it easier for the other person to settle in and find that sense of belonging.

6. Staying Connected

The three of us are so lucky we still have each other, and when we are together, we talk about the traits we see in each other that we try to trace back to what we remember about mom and dad. It is always a great discussion about who resembles dad or mom the most, or who was their favorite child. Of course I was the favorite child. About two years ago we went to Lisbon for a week, where I had been on CEMS exchange at Nova and I showed them around the city from where I have so many great memories. It felt amazing, as though they both had been with me during my stay in Lisbon. My brother loved the place, and he took his girlfriend there a few months ago and proposed to her at one of our favorite spots in the city.

We always get down to the essence, which is, that the three of us agree that whatever we will do with our lives, we have to make our parents proud. And that in a broader sense translates, not only to the legacy of our parents, but also every single person that went out of their way to help us and make sure we had good lives growing up. I think we’ve reached a point in our lives where we know that we’ll overcome no matter what challenges we face.

7. Looking forward

Having gone through what I went through, I am just happy to enjoy the moment with so many good friends that life has brought me. Even though the past might be painful in some sense, I always feel so fortunate and privileged to be where I am. Having been so many places and meeting so many different people is a privilege that very few have, and for each smile I share with someone I know I am sharing a piece of mom and dad with that person.

I hope that we as a ‘CEMS generation’, tomorrow’s leaders, will infiltrate the echelons of power and “the system” and work together towards bringing about peace and sustainable practices everywhere. As we grow older and get children, neices and nephews, you want to be able make sure they never have to face what you’ve gone through and that they will have a resourceful and peaceful earth in order for them to reach their full potential.

Walking across the stage at my CEMS graduation in Sydney will be such an honor and privilege for me to be able to extend back heartfelt gratitude to everyone who has ever helped me and my siblings move ahead, to all those who made an effort, or just by being who they are, inspired me to keep on walking. The strong support network that made an orphaned refugee to a resourceful young man ready to take on the world. And most of all a token of appreciation to the aunt who willingly and gracefully took the place of my mom and dad and never made me question.