Meet Peace Izabayo, a Rwandan-American Social Worker and Former Refugee

For World Refugee Day this year, we are launching a campaign, #FaceTowardsHope, to feature the stories of refugees—their strength, their resilience, and their hopes for the future.

Peace Izabayo fled home for the first time when she was in second grade.

The oldest of six siblings, Peace was born into the middle of a bloody conflict in Rwanda that was decades older than her. Her Tutsi mother and Hutu father were from two warring groups whose fighting turned into a genocidal killing spree that took the lives of nearly a million people in 1994. Her father spent most of her childhood in and out of jail, imprisoned on sham charges because of his ethnic background. And since her family came from different sides of the same conflict, it was often hard to be accepted.

So when Peace was seven years old, her father told the family it was time to go—they were going to flee to Uganda. With her mother staying home in Rwanda, it was up to Peace to care for her siblings, including her one-and-a-half-year-old infant sister.

Life in Uganda was not much easier. “Some days we didn’t eat. We brought our own mattress, and we used the one mattress for five people. We lived in a small open market. When the market closed, we would put out our stuff in a corner and sleep until they opened in the morning. We didn’t have a real place to stay. It was so hard,” Peace said.

One day the owner of the market told Peace and her family that they were no longer welcome. They had to leave in the middle of the night. A friend of Peace’s father let them stay in his two-bedroom home where 20 other people were staying. Life continued in difficulty for the family, and Peace’s infant sister fell ill. When her mother heard that her daughter was sick, she decided to join the family.

But one problem turned into another.

“My mom is Tutsi, and people in Uganda didn’t like Tutsis. People were poisoning us, saying bad stuff to us. My mom couldn’t leave the house. Some days she would get up and tell us that the bread that was left overnight for us had been poisoned. There was no way we could stay in Uganda.”

The family met a group who said they’d help them escape to safety. But they quickly realized that these people were criminals too.

“We drove for a day non-stop… no eating, no water—nothing. They took us far away. They lied to us that they were going to take us to a better place, but they put us in the car and drove us to a house with other prisoners… They told us day after day that they were waiting for orders, but the orders were to go after my dad.”

“Nobody chooses to be a refugee… It takes a lot to decide to leave your own country and look for a better life. Besides the name refugee, we are all just human beings.”

Peace Izabyo

The family had nothing. “We used to go pick up leaves and grass and pretend that it was spinach and eat it.”

First her father escaped, and then one night he came back to pick them up and bring them to safety. The family set out to drive toward South Africa where they thought they could find a better life. But without proper visas or identification, the family had nowhere to turn. In Tanzania, a sympathetic border agent told them they’d take them to Kenya where they could be accepted as refugees.

Life in Kenya proved hard for Peace too. “My parents didn’t have a job for four years. They were begging on the streets here and there—doing as much as we can to survive. They put me in school, but put me in a level for my age—by then I had spent years out of school. Most days I couldn’t go anyway because I had to watch my siblings while my mother would go and beg.”

With nowhere else to turn, the family went to a camp for refugees where at least they would be provided with a tent and food rations.

“I was so sad. I didn’t want this life. I didn’t want to live outside. But then I realized that I wasn’t better than anyone—there were people from all over,” said Peace.

Camp life continued with its own challenges—abuse, hunger, disease, beatings, snakes, and scorpions. But the family filed for resettlement and finally received news that they were going to be able to start a new life in the United States.

They arrived in Texas in February 2009.

“My English was very bad. People didn’t like me, didn’t know who I was. It was very hard. The first week of school, I missed lunch the whole week because I didn’t know where lunch room was. I didn’t know where to go for second period. Where I come from you don’t leave the class, the teacher comes to you. But suddenly I loved it. I was so excited that I was in school.”

Ten years later, Peace has dedicated her life to giving back to people like her.

“I graduated from college last year with my masters in social work. Now I work for Catholic Charities. I am able to give and help prevent problems that I encountered when I arrived in America. I teach parents how to live here, what to do, what their rights are, who to communicate with… If I met someone who spoke my language when I first arrived, I would have never missed lunch.”

What does Peace want the world to know this World Refugee Day?

“Nobody chooses to be a refugee… It takes a lot to decide to leave your own country and look for a better life. Besides the name refugee, we are all just human beings,” she said.

“People just want peace. I just hope that someday people will understand.”

Photo Caption: Peace at home in Texas.