no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
—Warsan Shire, Somali poet
More than 17,000 people live in Kiziba, a refugee camp in Rwanda. All of them are Congolese, having fled from a gruesome civil war and the constant threat of violence lurking within the everyday. By 1996, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had become an unsafe place, like the jagged jaws of a shark – able to clamp down and shred lives to pieces, without notice. More than 4 million women and men lost their lives during a decade of war and political and social instability. It was genocide.
To save themselves, the family of Solange Ingabire (’24, Rwanda) quietly left their home, their land, and the vanishing comforts of a good life in the DRC. After crossing the border into Rwanda, they arrived at the Karongi District of Western Province and settled in Kiziba, the UN Refugee Agency’s longest-operating camp in the country. Solange was born there, four years after her parents and five siblings had migrated. Born under refugee status, she has since lived a life marked by struggle and resistance – but also by the vigor of a being free woman, brimming with ideas and the courage that has enabled her to overcome stigmas and build bridges toward new opportunities.
Earlier this year, Solange received a call from Costa Rica, announcing she had successfully passed every stage of a rigorous admission process and thus was accepted to study at EARTH University, joining the Class of 2024. In that call, she learned she had won a full scholarship from Mastercard Foundation, that would allow her to live in Costa Rica and progress toward her dream of becoming an agricultural engineer. From the small space she shared with her parents and siblings, joyful shouts could be heard. Solange was speechless, caught somewhere between overwhelming emotion and ecstatic pride. For her, studying at EARTH means that no matter one’s status, a person can go wherever desired.
Usually, admitted students who do not speak Spanish travel to Costa Rica five months before the start of the academic year to participate in the Spanish and Cultural Induction Program, an intensive course of language and lifestyle immersion. During this time, the students spend their days in Spanish classes at EARTH’s Guácimo Campus and their nights and weekends living with families in the surrounding communities. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the new cohort of African and Caribbean students are participating virtually.
Solange began Spanish lessons two months ago. As the result of her own tireless efforts, her teachers, and the upper-level students who have helped her practice, she can now hold a conversation in the new language. She receives the lessons while living in the refugee camp. Basic services, such as water and electricity, are extremely limited within Kiziba. Refugees with mobile phones must pay others to charge them, and often 50 to 70 families have to share a single spout of water. The internet is also a highly limited resource in the camp. However, thanks to funding from Mastercard Foundation, Solange has the internet, electricity, and laptop needed to excel in her classes.
Studying at a distance is a challenge for anyone. For a Congolese person with refugee status, studying in general is almost impossible. “Getting the funding to be able to receive an education is very difficult. My parents couldn’t pay for my studies because they didn’t have money. They always have to put forth a lot of effort, even to get food. So, education is often not an option for families like mine,” Solange says. “I was lucky because I was able to go to primary school in the camp without having to pay anything, but secondary school was more complicated. We had no money, and I started to lose hope. I got help from ACTS 4 RWANDA, an organization that supports children in vulnerable areas. They came to the camp, and I shared my story and my dreams. That’s how I managed to finish high school.”
Ever since she was a little girl, Solange worked on a farm, alongside her mother. They were tasked with preparing the land and planting crops such as corn and potatoes. Solange was young but recognized in herself an insatiable curiosity about agriculture. She wanted to learn how to care for plants, how fertilizers work, and more. From then on, she committed herself to studying biology, mathematics, and chemistry with great care. And she searched for opportunities to study agricultural sciences – whether inside or outside Rwanda. Upon successful completion of high school, Rwandan students are entitled to a government scholarship to attend university. But, because of Solange’s refugee status, she was ineligible.
Solange first heard about EARTH in 2018 when some peers were talking about universities atop their wish lists. Immediately, she knew this was a possibility for her, one that suited her desire to study agriculture, interact with the world, and grow as a human being. With great hope, she applied. She was confident in her abilities yet nervous she would not make it – many doors had been closed on her many times before. Why not this one, too?
That explains the jubilation Solange and her family felt upon answering the phone call from EARTH. A university admission and a full scholarship! She now hopes to inspire others who find themselves in similar, seemingly hopeless circumstances.
“It is difficult to shake off the stigma of being a refugee. There are always fewer opportunities, but nothing is impossible. Now I’m reaching out to my friends who are struggling, to motivate them to change their minds,” Solange says. “I’m convinced the best way to change the course of your life is to change the way you think. I could have said ‘I am a refugee, I will never be accepted in any university,’ but that didn’t prove true. Now I have a full scholarship to study in Costa Rica, in a prestigious university. So, if you try many times and knock on many doors, everything will be fine.”
She already works hard for her refugee community. With the help of friends, she created YES WE CAN, a project that opens spaces for dialogue among young people, to motivate one another, seek financial aid for their educations, and generate solutions to the daily problems they face, such as teenage pregnancy and lack of access to decent jobs.
Thousands of people continue to be displaced from the DRC by the waves of violence and instability. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5 million people have left their homes to seek asylum in countries such as Angola and Rwanda between 2017 and 2019. Vulnerable places like Kiziba need empowered young women like Solange leading change. And promising young women like Solange deserve the opportunity to prepare themselves as professionals.
“After I graduate, I want to return to my community to positively transform it. I hope that I will be an inspiration to other young people. I want to be proof that, in life, no matter the circumstances, one can be whatever one sets out to be. Whether you’re a refugee or facing some other struggle, nothing can stop you from reaching your goals. The path can be difficult, but nothing is impossible,” says Solange, who in a few months will board an airplane for the first time, travel halfway around the world, and live four years at EARTH, filling herself and others with knowledge, tools, and stories.
At EARTH, we celebrate Solange’s courage to pursue her dreams – despite the odds – and to invite others to dream as well.