Elysee’s story: from surviving genocide to fighting for refugees

When Elysee tells refugee children not to give up hope – that a better future is possible – he speaks from harrowing personal experience.

Elysee, 29, works with young refugees who have fled violence in Burundi and for whom Rwanda has become a place of safety.

A quarter of a century ago, four-year-old Elysee lived through the Rwandan genocide: the mass killing of 800,000 people.

Now, 25 years on, Elysee works with young children facing their own nightmare – refugees who have fled violence in Burundi and for whom Rwanda has become a place of safety.

In Elysee they could not have found a more inspiring ally. His story shows what’s possible when someone refuses to let even the most extreme challenges life can present, stop them becoming who they want to be.

Elysee fulfilled his ambition of going to university, and begun a career with Save the Children.

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the genocide this month, Elysee talks movingly about that cataclysmic event, about helping to alleviate the suffering of today’s refugees, and about why he’s hopeful for the future.

One hundred days of horror

Elysee on the dark days of Rwanda’s genocide, which began 25 years ago this month…

“Everyone remembers what happened, and what they went through. They saw neighbours killing neighbours. What happened – I don’t know the words to use – it was horrific.

“When I was a child, they told us people were looking for us – people who had machetes and were killing us. One of my brothers fled while we were hiding and we didn’t see him again.

“In the midst of those horrors people lose dignity, they lose hope and they don’t think about the future – they are always afraid of what will happen.

“When I hear people talking about division, when they start to divide others into those groups [Hutus and Tutsis], I’m afraid of what will follow.

“The good thing is that today those who killed others are working for pardons and those who are victims are trying to forgive.”

Supporting refugees

On helping Burundi children at Mahama refugee camp with Save the Children:

“The first days [of working in Mahama] I spent a lot of time crying – seeing children naked and their mothers with nothing to give them. I was looking at the children and thinking they are facing the consequences of something they don’t understand.

Elysee, pictured with 'First Read', with children who are a part of his reading club in Mahama Camp, Rwanda.
Elysee, pictured with children participating in his reading club in Mahama Camp, Rwanda.

“When the refugees were coming in, there were only very sad stories. I saw children who were starving, who were crying, who were dead. But now, I go into the field and see the impact of what has been done – seeing children happy, playing.

“It’s touched my heart to see the children who were displaced getting psychosocial support. I’ve seen the transformation Save the Children has achieved. It’s an honour to me to work with such an organisation.”

What drives Elysee

Elysee’s late father instilled in him the drive to be successful.

“When my father died [in 2011] it felt like it was the end of the world. I lost his love.

“He did everything he could to help me grow and go to school. He went too early but he did what he could, and he thought I might be a great person, that’s what I think.

“When I got a chance to apply for university, I tried hard to achieve what my father taught me before he died.

“I’m not yet where I want to be, but I’m on a good track and I hope I will reach what I want to achieve. I always hope for the best. If I didn’t have hope and if my father hadn’t taught me to strive for the best, I wouldn’t have become the person I am today.”

His message for children

“I like telling children my story – especially to those who lost their parents. I always encourage them to work hard so they can live the life they want. If they don’t see hope I always tell them ‘you can achieve the best things in life if you want to’.

“If I saw a child aged four who fled to Mahama, I would say: ‘Being alive, there is hope that life will change and become better.’ Here in Rwanda we have gone through something similar and we have regained hope for the future.”

Elysee’s story shows what is possible when someone refuses to let even the most extreme adversity stop them becoming the person they want to be.

In the immediate aftermath of the genocide in 1994, Save the Children helped trace parents or relatives of thousands of children who had become separated from their families.

Ever since, we have worked to help Rwanda’s children survive and build a better future. Since 2015, we’ve provided vital healthcare, nutrition and child protection to Burundi refugees living in Rwanda.

Save the Children’s work in Mahama Refugee Camp

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