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Rwanda survivor at Lewis-Clark State College aims to return home as social worker

Epiphanie Muhayimana is a student at Lewis-Clark State College. (Associated Press)
Epiphanie Muhayimana is a student at Lewis-Clark State College. (Associated Press)

LEWISTON – Epiphanie Muhayimana wants to help people who are suffering, and she hopes the education she is pursuing at Lewis-Clark State College will allow her do that.

Muhayimana’s experience with suffering is immediate and personal. A native of Rwanda, she was 7 during the country’s genocide of the 1990s, old enough to recall terrifying moments most Americans can only imagine.

“I remember many people were killed and I lost many people in my family,” she said.

But the events she endured left her not bitter, but determined to do good.

“When I was younger, I wanted to study to be a nurse and help people who are suffering or are in pain,” she said.

After completing a year of intensive English study at LCSC, Muhayimana, 27, started general classes Monday with the intention of enrolling in the school’s social work program.

Before coming to the U.S., Muhayimana worked at a health center in a small Rwandan village helping malnourished children, pregnant women and HIV patients.

She hopes learning English and getting a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. will help her get a job with a nongovernmental organization in Rwanda so she can continue the work she was doing there – on a larger scale.

Clarkston residents Gretchen and Tim Gundy have opened their home to Muhayimana and are helping her apply for the scholarships she’ll need to continue her education.

Muhayimana met the Gundys’ daughter, Rachel, at the health center where she worked in Rwanda. Rachel Gundy went to the country as part of her Peace Corps service.

“Because we were working together, we just became good friends,” Muhayimana said.

When Rachel Gundy returned to Clarkston in July 2013, Muhayimana came with her, with a five-year student visa in hand.

She said her desire to do the good work of helping others stems from the three years she spent in a refugee camp with her family in the forest after the killings in Rwanda began. Many refugees, including Muhayimana, contracted cholera. Many died with no doctors or nurses at the camp to treat them.

“It was hard to survive,” Muhayimana said.

A nearby cemetery was a constant reminder of the precariousness of their situation.

“We expected I can die anytime,” she said. “I just know I didn’t die that time.”

Her siblings and parents survived, too. But her grandparents and many aunts, uncles and cousins did not.

Her oldest sister, who was 16 when the family went into hiding, was the smartest among the siblings, Muhayimana said. But when the family returned to Rwanda, she had to go to work and never finished her education.

Muhayimana passed the exam to continue her education in high school, found sponsorships to pay school fees and became the first person in her family to attend college. She earned the equivalent of a U.S. associate degree in human nutrition and dietetics, which allowed her to work at the health center where she met Rachel Gundy.

It will take Muhayimana about three years to complete the social work degree at LCSC, she said. She has a scholarship through the school that will help pay for part of her tuition this year, but still needs to come up with about $10,000, she said.