Vestine Ncungu survived genocide in Rwanda. Now she is using her experience to help others heal

By EILEEN O’GRADY | Concord Monitor

Vestine Ncungu was 11 when she had to run for her life and hide in the trees to escape militia soldiers who were killing members of her ethnic group during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Most of her family members didn’t make it out alive. She was one of the lucky ones who escaped. She stayed safe with what remained of her extended family and eventually got permission to come to the United States as a young woman.

Haunted by the trauma of her past, it took Ncungu years to rebuild her life as a young, new American mother alone in Concord.

Ncungu, now 39, wants to share her story with others, with the hope of inspiring people to overcome hardships in their own lives, while also warning people about the dangers of allowing politically motivated hate to control their actions. In March, Ncungu started a motivational speaking company called Survivors’ Healing Tree, a name that’s meant to reflect the way she views herself: as a branch that was cut off from a tree but has now sprouted new growth and roots of its own.

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“It’s a big vision where everybody who is hurt, who has a burden, can come and just share, kind of like healing,” Ncungu said. “I don’t know how many years it will take, but that’s my vision that I have for Survivors’ Healing Tree.”

As a child growing up in Rwanda in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Ncungu could tell it was a divided world. In school, all the children were given ID cards that labeled them as Hutus or Tutsis, and they were taught to know the difference. But Ncungu, who was a Tutsi, grew up in a majority-Tutsi village, and the few Hutus who lived among them were friends and neighbors.

“When you showed your ID, it was just official. You were a Hutu or a Tutsi or a Twa,” Ncungu said. “But for me, at the age of 11, I couldn’t realize the hate until the genocide started.”

The genocide against the Tutsis began in April 1994 and lasted three months. Ncungu’s mother and father, her six siblings and her three grandparents were among the 500,000 people who were killed. Ncungu, who was sent to live with a Hutu neighbor, survived.

In the years afterward, Ncungu lived with extended family members in Kigali – first with an aunt and an uncle, and then with an older cousin who raised her from age 15 to 23. The trauma of what she had lived through permeated every aspect of her life, but she finished school and went to university to study accounting, and eventually began working as a loan analyst in a bank.

By 2010, Ncungu had been married to her husband, Jean Claude Kageruka Nsengiyumva, for just three months when she got the news – she had finally been selected for the green card lottery she had applied for in 2008 to come to the U.S. But with her husband in the military, Ncungu, who was pregnant, had to make the journey alone.

When she first came to the U.S., she lived in Portland, Maine, with family friends until her baby was born. Then, when the others moved to Texas in 2011, Ncungu relocated to live with other family friends in Concord.

She returned to Rwanda once, when her husband received word that Ncungu’s father’s remains, which had been missing since the genocide, had finally been located. But when she arrived, she saw that the remains had been incorrectly identified – it wasn’t him. When she returned to New Hampshire, she learned she was pregnant with her second child.

“I said, ‘God, just give me strength, because I’m here with two kids,’ ” Ncungu said. ” ‘How many years are we going to be separated? I know this is Your plan, but how long?’ ”

Those early years in the U.S. were challenging for Ncungu, trying to balance work as a single parent to two young children. While Ncungu had studied some English in school, her speaking skills were far behind her writing skills, and she realized she would need English classes if she was going to find better work. She enrolled at NHTI and found an evening job cleaning houses, but dividing her time between school and work left little time to spend with her children.

“My daughter was 3 years at that time, and she said ‘Mum, are you really leaving us again?’ ” Ncungu became emotional as she recalled the memory. “So after that, I quit (school). It was a very tough decision. But I didn’t regret that.”

Ncungu’s luck began to change when she found a new job with the community support organization New American Africans, where she was tasked with helping other immigrants access government health insurance. That’s when her boss encouraged her to start seeking a job in her field – accounting.

“I was hesitant because I learned most of accounting in French,” Ncungu said. “I said, ‘How am I going to match my French with English in accounting?’ But he told me, ‘Don’t disqualify yourself.’ ”

In 2017, Ncungu applied for and landed a job as an accounting assistant at Northeast Delta Dental, where she has worked ever since. She was promoted to accountant after two years.

“It was kind of a dream, how they considered my bachelor’s in accounting from my country,” Ncungu said. “Some people who come here as immigrants, most of them, they have to go to some kind of training to get career work. For me, it was like a miracle.”

Four months after getting the job, she got the news that her husband had finished his time in the military and was coming to the U.S. to join her. When she and the children met him at the airport, he carried the shirt he wore when he talked to the children on Skype, so he could put it on in case they didn’t recognize him. But he didn’t need to – the children spotted him even before Ncungu did and ran into his arms.

Ncungu has long wanted to share her story with others, with the hope that hearing about her perseverance despite tragedy will inspire others in their own struggles. She also hopes that talking about her experience through the Rwandan genocide will remind Americans of the danger of allowing hate to thrive in their communities.

So far, through Survivors’ Healing Tree, Ncungu has spoken at the Woman’s Club of Concord, Leadership New Hampshire and Northeast Delta Dental. She plans to expand her circuit to include high schools and colleges, civic events and panel discussions. She also plans to host workshops to help students share their own stories.

She is currently working on writing a book about her experiences.

“I want everybody to come and be here, sharing our story by supporting each other,” Ncungu said.