Burundi first lady Denise Nkurunziza on Friday urged refugees in Chattanooga “to come home” and help rebuild the country.
“It takes the power of many people to rebuild the country,” Mrs. Nkurunziza said Friday through an interpreter during an interview at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Mrs. Nkurunziza, who speaks the Bantu dialect of Kirundi, is in Chattanooga this weekend to talk about her organization, Ubuntu, which means “grace” in Kirundi, and about her goals to build centers around her country to help the widows, orphans and elders of Burundi, a tiny country in east-central Africa.
“In our country, we have experienced war, and people have been affected by HIV/AIDS, and that has caused us many widows and many orphans,” she said. “I feel I need to help those in need.”
In 1993, the assassination of Burundi’s first democratically elected president triggered widespread ethnic violence between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, causing the death of more than 200,000 Burundians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.
In 2005, a new constitution was established and President Pierre Nkurunziza, along with a majority Hutu government, was elected. In September 2006, the president signed a South African-brokered ceasefire with the country’s last rebel group.
As many as 10,000 Burundi refugees from a Hutu camp in Tanzania are being resettled in the United States this year, according to U.S. resettlement officials. About 40 of them, 14 families with 17 children, have moved to Chattanooga, officials said.
“I’m a resident of the (United States), but I have passion for my country, and I believe we should help them rebuild the country,” said Joyeuse Nyanhoza, a Burundi refugee who left seven years ago and recently founded Quiana Inc. (Living with Grace) in Boston. Quiana Inc. is a nonprofit to help women in Burundi.
* Population: 8.3 million
* Size: Slightly smaller than Maryland
* Life expectancy at birth: 51 years, compared to 78 years in the United States
* Infant mortality rate: 60.77 deaths per 1,000 live births
* Total fertility rate: 6.4 children born per woman
* Literacy: 59.3 percent of total population age 15 and over can read and write
Source: CIA World Fact Book
Mrs. Nyanhoza, who served as interpreter for the first lady, said someday she hopes to go back to Burundi and help all the women who were raped and traumatized during the war.
“I can’t see how I can stay here and be blessed in this country ... this was my training,” she said. “We need to bring them hope and restoration. When you train women, you train the whole country.”
Dr. Steve Ball and his wife, Reita, were hosts to Mrs. Nkurunziza while she was in Chattanooga. He said they met the first lady last year in Africa and invited her to network and form partnerships in the United States.
“Our desire is to build bridges in the community around the world, both in the religious and political community,” he said. “Try to bridge the gap because we all want to work together for peace, for the betterment of health and education.”
While in Chattanooga through Sunday, the first lady, who is a born-again Christian, will visit organizations and businesses, including hospitals and Sam’s Club. On Sunday, she will share her experiences from the pulpit at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Mrs. Nkurunziza said she was very impressed by T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital.
“The children are treated very well in this country,” she said. “There is a very big difference in how children are treated in our country and here. I invite you all to our country so together we can help raise children, because we know they are the leaders of the future.”
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who attended a Friday lunch with the first lady, said Mrs. Nkurunziza’s visit has inspired her to do some work abroad.
“I think it’s very important that we establish relationships globally, not just with businesses but also with our religion,” she said, “I personally am interested now in doing some work out of this country because I think in this global society it’s now very important.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...