Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Life experiences from the resumé of a survivor

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I called Jackson Nahayo Wednesday to see how he was doing.

Not well, as it turned out.

He'd read my column about his early Sunday morning mistaken-identity encounter with police in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven on Ellice and Maryland.

But it was evident from his voice that he was still upset by the experience.

"For the last couple of days I tried to be strong," the 23-year-old Burundian refugee said. "But I guess it caught up with me."

I suggested to Jackson that he needed some professional counselling. Then, without realizing what I was about to do, I asked him to tell me the story of his life again. The story of his survival as a child refugee of African civil war.

And the Winnipeg couple who helped him.


His story starts with bombs falling on his school and friends dying around him.

He was six years old.

Jackson and his nine-year-old sister, Antoinette, managed to get out alive, only to be captured immediately by Burundian rebel soldiers and spirited up into mountain jungles to be used with a dozen or so other captured children as human pack horses.

And to be abused by the rag-tag militia.

Six months into their capture, young Jackson watched his sister and other girls being sexually abused. He cried out for the soldiers to stop.

"I told them God would punish them," Jackson recalled.

With that he was called into a circular clearing the soldiers had hacked out of the jungle.

"They placed a gun in my hand and told me to shoot my sister and I refused. I wouldn't do that."

He remembers seeing a soldier's black boots and the butt of his rifle being aimed at his head.

That's all he remembers until he regained consciousness, a group of Burundian refugees standing over him.

The soldiers had left him to die in the jungle. Someone else, he presumed, had killed his sister.

One of the men among the refugees recognized Jackson's last name and told him his parents were also dead.

Now without family, Jackson was taken by the "Good Samaritans" across a river into Congo. There a farmer put him to work tending cattle, sheep and goats and beating him if any went missing. Jackson contracted malaria in Congo. He was 10 when war broke out there and again he fled. This time to Zambia, and a hostel in Lusaka. Alone now, in a city of three million, Jackson went in search of someone to help him.

"Anyone I would meet I would ask for help and ask if I could stay with them."

Jackson thinks it was on the second day in Lusaka that he arrived at a building that had the word "Bible" on it, and went in.

It was a place operated by the Mennonite Central Committee and once inside, speaking only French, Jackson told the woman what he wanted.

"I said I need help and I want to go to school."

The woman, Lois Coleman Neufeld, and her husband, Rob Neufeld, would end up sending Jackson to school where, in Grade 7, he obtained the highest marks in the country's national exams. By Grade 10, his refugee status had landed him in Winnipeg, where he still lives with the people who granted his wish for an education -- Lois and Rob -- the people he now calls his "parents".

Jackson was in Winnipeg when he learned his mother, father and sister back in Burundi had also survived.

And in his senior year at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute, the students raised the money to fly him back to Burundi with gifts for his family.

"The shocking part," Jackson recalled, "was meeting with my sister."

What was shocking was what his sister said to him when they saw each again for the first time since the day in the jungle.

"She said, 'Why did you do that? Why didn't you shoot me?'"

Jackson explained her reaction.

In the years since their last day together, his sister had struggled with the guilt that he died because she had lived.


When he finished sharing his story, I asked Jackson again how he felt now.

"I feel a little better," he said.

Which made me feel better, too.

But there's a post-script to Jackson's story.

In his first year going to school here, he applied for work at a 7-Eleven of all places. He got the job, but at first he wasn't sure he would.

"I didn't have a resume," Jackson recalled.

But he did, of course; you've just read it.

The resumé of a survivor.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2009 B1

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