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Refugee-turned-Rhodes Scholar earns human rights award

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Louise Simbandumwe knows how valuable it is when a country opens its arms to a newcomer in need.

Her work in the field of human rights and helping newcomers to the city recently earned her a prestigious honour.

Simbandumwe, director of SEED Winnipeg’s asset building programs, was one of the people honoured with a Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba.

The awards are handed out annually by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. The commission recognizes achievements in human rights along with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties.
Simbandumwe’s own experiences as a refugee greatly influenced her decision to do human rights work.

She arrived in Canada at the age of 11 in 1979, as a refugee from Burundi. She and her parents had been studying in India in the 1970s when they heard word of widespread massacres in their home country, which made it impossible for them to return.

"That experience of living as a refugee and understanding that what happened in Burundi wasn’t unique... has been a big motivation. And also recognizing that people reached out and helped my family in really concrete ways by sponsoring us," she said.

What followed was what Simbandumwe calls an "unimaginable" change in fortunes. Arriving as a refugee, she went on to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

"Going from being a refugee to that, that’s unimaginable. There’s an obligation that comes with that to be part of creating opportunities and stopping human rights violations," she said.

Her work with SEED entails working with low-income residents, providing programs which help train them in money management and which enable them to access entitlements such as the Canada Learning Bond. They also offer matched savings programs, to help people build their savings, and those programs have been replicated among SEED’s many partner organizations.

"It can make a really profound difference in people’s lives. I think the main thing is to invite some degree of stability," Simbandumwe said of the programs, adding they often help people begin saving money for the first time in their lives, rather than be in a state of perpetual financial scrambling.

Simbandumwe founded the Run For Rights more than a decade ago. The fundraiser supports social justice and human rights. In the beginning, organizers had only a few partner organizations, including Amnesty International, and 30 people attended. The initial event raised $3,000.

This year’s 11th annual event had approximately 15 partner organizations, about 400 attendees (including volunteers) and a final fundraising total of more than $30,000. Simbandumwe started the run to help raise money for Amnesty International’s varied and expensive letter-writing initiatives. She began to involve other groups in order to expand the event’s reach and give those groups a chance to raise money for their own initiatives.

"We decided to try the run and I thought it would work better to work with other organizations and pool our resources... and each organization could raise money for their own organization," she explained.

Simbandumwe said she was pleased with winning the award but also humbled by it because she hasn’t been working alone.

"Doing community-based human rights work, you’re always doing it with other people," she said.

"It always feels a little odd to be singled out. All the projects I’ve work on have involved a lot of other people who help make them work."

Her work is far from over. Simbandumwe was scheduled to speak at a Dec. 1 town hall forum on immigration at Red River College’s Princess Street Campus, hosted by the Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition.

Simbandumwe, who helped to organize the event, acknowledged she has concerns about changes to the federal government’s immigration policies, changes she feels will hurt the chances of refugees hoping to make it into this country.

"I just feel really strongly that I want Canada to continue being a welcoming country, particularly to refugees who can’t return to their homelands," she said.
Simbandumwe said she wants to continue to work with others to "reduce barriers and create opportunities" for those in the same situation her family once was.

"It’s just about trying to address injustice and open up opportunities so people can live to their fullest potential," she said.

Simbandumwe is to receive her award Thurs., Dec. 6.

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