Building a new Canadian life alone, for a while

My little brother and I grew up sharing a room. As refugees, we would share a country.

By: /
November 18, 2020
The author, second from right, with her siblings. Her brother, Robin, is the baby.

When I think of the word “home,” I think of a space where you belong without trying to fit in, where everything around you works for your betterment, even when it doesn’t feel like it. So far, I’ve had two such homes, in Burundi and Canada. 

My first was the house I was born and lived in until I was 21. It was in a middle-class neighbourhood in the city of Bujumbura. I am the third of four children, five years younger than my twin sisters and four years older than my brother, Robin.  

Growing up, we didn’t have the luxury to have a bedroom each. My sisters shared one and my brother and I shared the other one — though that arrangement came later on, after all our uncles, aunties and cousins left to live on their own. Our house was always full, with little privacy. I had the responsibility of waking Robin every day when he first started high school because, I was told, I was lucky enough to own a cell phone. I couldn’t complain because giving up that phone would be too high a price, and the responsibility came with having leverage over my brother. How loudly I would wake him up depended on how good he was with me the night before. And so, we learned to accept each other and become friends for the sake of living together in peace. 

At school, I was always the odd kid, a misfit. Once school ended for the day, I would sit in a corner of our front yard where no one would see me and cry and cry and cry. I would cry because I was big, because I didn’t have friends, because no one ever remembered to invite me to parties. After crying all the tears out of my 15-year-old body, I would clean up and go sit with my siblings and my mom for dinner. I had to quickly put on my happy face because that was my job. I learned early on to set myself aside when my mom needed me for a laugh after arguing with my father. 

The age differences between my siblings and me mattered less as we grew older. We didn’t need to talk about it, but we knew we relied on each other because we shared the same pains. 

Living in Burundi was never quite safe, but it wasn’t really dangerous until the crisis in 2015, or at least as far as I could tell. We were used to hearing gunshots, but it was unusual to hear them every night with no end. My family had survived crises before. This was my first time to live it as an adult and see the damage with my own eyes. 

My parents started making plans to get us, the children, out of the country. We knew to not argue with them and to do exactly what they said. First, they sent us to Rwanda, where my brother went to boarding school. My sisters and I lived in a refugee camp for a while, and then we relied on family and friends. Meanwhile, my parents worked on getting me a student visa for Canada. I wasn’t given much information. They simply told me to pray. 

On the evening of my birthday in 2016, my mother called me on my cell phone, crying and shouting in my ear that I received the visa. My life shattered. I was excited to move to a safer place but sad to leave everything I knew, everything that made me feel at home. The next few days were hectic. I didn’t allow myself time to dwell on wondering when I would see my brother again or how I would live in a place where I didn’t know anyone. Those are thoughts that cripple your mind late at night and stop you from sleeping. 

I landed, exhausted, at the Ottawa International Airport on May 26, 2016. After a few minutes, I saw among the crowds of waiting people the family that had agreed to take me in for a while. They were the relatives of friends in Burundi. I recognized them from a picture my mom showed me before I got on the plane. 

I spent the next few days in a haze. My host family showed me the different stores and how to travel around the city by bus. I began my English-as-a-second-language classes and, within a month, moved into an apartment with other students. 

“I spent nights staring at the ceiling, trying to reconcile the strange pain of feeling like an outsider with my mother’s promise that everything would be all right.”

I spent nights staring at the ceiling, trying to reconcile the strange pain of feeling like an outsider with my mother’s promise that everything would be all right. I could barely communicate with anyone. I had never slept alone in a bedroom before. 

The family that hosted me when I arrived had advised me to give up my student status and seek asylum because my parents could only afford to pay for one year of schooling. I decided to follow their advice. A lawyer helped me file a refugee claim. Then I worked on putting together a resumé and finding a job. 

In Burundi, I never had to do things like this for myself. I didn’t have to choose my clothes, because my sisters did the shopping. I didn’t even have to know what I liked to eat, because the food was always prepared. But as the weeks and months added up, I realized that the life I had was my life, a life that belonged solely to me. 

Before a year had passed, I was feeling a bit like myself, still struggling with English but feeling hopeful. I had a daily routine, a favourite grocery store, a favourite place in the library where I used to sit and read for hours. I was starting to build my life. 

Mutaramuka with her brother, Robin, moments after he arrived in Canada.

Then, in April 2017, I received a call that shattered everything again. Robin, now 17, had received a visa to travel to the United States. He was there now and would soon be using the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing to enter Canada. 

I was overjoyed and scared at the same time. I barely had my life in control, and now I would have to take care of somebody else. I was afraid that Robin and I had lost our connection in the two years that we hadn’t talked. I was afraid to disappoint my parents and my brother. I was afraid to lose myself again. 

Those fears vanished the second our eyes met at the border in Quebec when I saw the smile on Robin’s lips. Nothing had changed, really. We were still the same kids that laughed at everything, the bedroom mates that would tell each other secrets late at night. He made my second home feel complete because now I had a purpose. I would make him feel at home, too.