Life and Terror: Jean Paul Mugisha finds a new life on The Bluff
Living > Life and Terror: Jean Paul Mugisha finds a new life on The Bluff

Life and Terror: Jean Paul Mugisha finds a new life on The Bluff

Jean Paul Mugisha tells his story of being a refugee and coming to UP.
by Jeffrey Braccia / The Beacon

Three-year-old Jean Paul Mugisha was holding his mother’s hand as they fled across the border to Rwanda. Along the grassy, unpaved mountain road, where they made their arduous trek, blood stains in the dirt spoke of the danger they were fleeing. The unceasing explosions and string of murders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his fertile home, were getting worse. 

Right outside the border, Mugisha and his family settled in Mudende transit refugee camp. Among the first refugees to arrive at the camp, they were able to lodge in an enclosed building, safer than the huts and tents out in the open.

Despite the unappetizing food and cramped shelter space, they had finally escaped the constant killing, rape and terror. 

Until one night, when a sharp, piercing cry jolted the entire camp awake. Members of the Hutu ethnic majority broke in with their intention to exterminate the Tutsi population. They slaughtered the Tutsi refugees with machetes and spike clubs and hacked them to death. People screamed, bodies dropped dead — including some of Mugisha’s relatives — and huts and tents were ablaze. 

The Bluff is a world away from that night in 1997, when over 200 people were massacred. Mugisha is now a senior electrical engineering major at the University of Portland under a presidential scholarship.

“Coming here is the turning point of my life,” said Mugisha. “I was living under really bad conditions, and I never thought I was going to be able to improve my future.”

Life as a refugee

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived the morning after the massacre in Mudende, and rescued the survivors, including Mugisha and his family. They moved to Gihembe refugee camp in northern Rwanda with about 17,000 other refugees. Mugisha and his family lived in the camp for the next 17 years.

“We fled Congo, because our ethnicity was being targeted,” Mugisha’s father said in Kinyarwanda, his native language. He and his family were part of the Tutsi ethnic group. “(Hutus) were coming for us so we had to flee. Life was really hard but because of God, we survived.”

Although they were safer in Gihembe, life was not easy. They lived in a 10 by 11-foot house house covered in plastic sheeting. The camp had neither running water nor electricity. They were paid only 24 cents a day, and would usually split a meal fit for one person or in some cases, not eat at all. 

“When we were kids, like all the kids in the camp, we thought that parents didn’t eat,” Mugisha said. “We never saw them eat. They just gave us food, and as I grew up, I realized it was their sacrifice.”

Mugisha had to wake up at 5 o’clock each morning to walk for more than a mile to get water for his family. The camp was situated uphill, so Mugisha had to lug three to five gallons of water back up the slope. 

He also worked hard in school. Mugisha would leave at 7 a.m. and often brave the day on an empty stomach. When he got home at 4 p.m., he would pick up more water and perhaps eat. At nightfall, he would study in the dark with a dimly lit candle. 

Jean Paul Mugisha open up about his family life, his time spent in the Congo, and his life at University of Portland with the Beacon.
by Julia Cramer / The Beacon

“I remember when my mom just gave birth to my youngest sibling, I was in charge of making the food and I was worried, because I didn’t know how to split it and make sure everyone had some,” Mugisha said. “So I didn’t eat. I didn’t care if I was hungry as long as everyone ate.”

“It takes a village to raise a child”

The only school in camp stopped at ninth grade. Students who wanted to further their education would have to pay for it and travel outside the camp. Mugisha was distraught because he thought it would be the end of his schooling.

He decided that the only way to escape the refugee camp was to study harder and go to college. He often asked his teachers for more assignments, and outscored the rest of his class on tests and quizzes. 

“For me all I wanted was to go to school because my parents never went to school,” Mugisha said. “So I feel like when I’m learning, I’m learning for my mom and dad.”

Daydon Harvey, project director for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Jesuit Refugee Service, noticed Mugisha’s accomplishments and offered to pay his tuition to finish high school. And in his last year before graduation, Mugisha took the national examination to graduate high school. He ranked second out of all the students in Rwanda. 

Mugisha wanted to go to college, but he had no money. As a refugee, he was not eligible for scholarships, despite his credentials. 

“My future looked dark to me and I didn’t know what to do since all the hard work I had put in while I was in high school didn’t seem to pay off at the time, ” Mugisha said.

But something illuminated Mugisha’s dark outlook: his hard work was rewarded.

An NGO based in Portland, Ore. named These Numbers Have Faces came to Rwanda and awarded college scholarships to bright Congolese refugees. Mugisha was one of them. He was soon enrolled at the prestigious Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. 

Mugisha with Justin Zoradi, Founder and CEO of These Numbers Have Faces.

(Courtesy of Ryan Hoppes)

“This makes us happy and gave us hope,” Mugisha’s mom said. “Although we were getting one meal per day, we were happy to see that he’s succeeding and that he’s getting a better life.”

A whole new world

Towards the end of 2013, his first year in college, UNHCR called Mugisha’s family and delivered even greater news: They were selected to be resettled in the United States. At first, they were hesitant and terrified of moving to a new country and learning a new culture. They had no idea where in the U.S. they would be resettled. 

Ryan Hoppes, CEO of a tech company called Allion USA and a board member of These Numbers Have Faces, played a big role in Mugisha’s transition to the U.S. in terms of education, resources and other opportunities.

When Hoppes found out that Mugisha’s family was selected by the UN for resettlement, he and other local leaders, including University President Fr. Mark Poorman, wrote a letter to the UN to try to get his family to resettle in Oregon.

“Fr. Mark Poorman was a good friend of mine, and I asked him and other local leaders if he would advocate on Jean Paul’s behalf to come to Portland,” Hoppes said. “We told (the UN) that there would be a community here that would be supportive and help them learn the ropes.”

Mugisha and his parents, Jean Karemera and Mukarugwiza Nyiramanyana.

About five days later, when Mugisha and his family landed at Portland International Airport, they were greeted with hugs from wellwishers and welcome signs bearing their names.

Food and language were initial challenges during their transition to the new culture. But agencies and organizations like UNHCR, NGO, Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and Lutheran Community Services helped them adapt by offering language classes and providing them with guidance. 

“When we got here, we had a huge community who welcomed us and helped us adjust,” Mugisha said. “They showed us around, taught us how to do groceries, register for school, apply for health care and all sorts of things.”

His family’s native languages were Kinyarwanda and Swahili. Mugisha, a fast learner, worried that his parents wouldn’t be able to find jobs because they didn’t speak English. But with the help of Lutheran Community Services, they are now working. 

“When I got my first job in 17 years, I was excited,” Mugisha’s father said. “In America, you have to work hard to succeed and I love that, because I get to pay rent, care for my family and my kids get to go to school. It’s the most beautiful feeling to me.”

Mugisha and his family had difficulty adjusting to American food. Although they found some places like Mama Pauline’s where they can purchase ingredients for their native food, they still long for the smell and authenticity of the African cuisine.

“I remember the first week I got here, I was offered a hot dog,” Mugisha said. “I had no idea what they were, but I tried it and I never liked hot dogs since then.”

But despite the different palate and new culture, at least they would no longer go hungry. 

Dreams and Successes

Mugisha attended Portland Community College for his first year. But when Poorman learned more of Mugisha’s story, he said that if Mugisha applied and got accepted to UP, Poorman would offer him a presidential scholarship. 

Mugisha got accepted and started at UP during his sophomore year. He said that coming to UP would open doors to achieving his longtime dream of becoming an electrical engineer.

“I grew up in the refugee camp with no electricity,” Mugisha said. “It was difficult for me to go study or do homework. My goal is to bring electricity to the camp or in my home village in Congo.”

But in a two-story wooden house hidden on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where Mugisha and his family now reside, there is electricity. The light inside their house was dim but amplified by the plain white walls that surrounded the living room. The mood was vibrant and filled with laughter from his younger siblings who playfully ran around the house.

Jean Paul and his parents talk about escaping the Congo and the hope for their futures in America.
by Sarah Varney / The Beacon

Mugisha has seven other siblings, and the house can often get a little rowdy, which is why he prefers to live in a dorm in case he needs to study. He resides in Villa Maria Hall and goes home during the weekends. 

During his junior year, Mugisha learned the beauty of networking and making connections. And last summer, he obtained a full-time internship with Intel Corporations with the help of Hoppes. 

“I look at Jean Paul and other refugees under the program and I see them taking every ounce of opportunity and making the absolute most out of it,” Hoppes said. “Jean Paul has experienced things we can’t even imagine, but he still has hope and saw things as an opportunity and not as a burden.”

Senior year is a packed schedule for Mugisha. He juggles 17 credits in school along with his now part-time internship at Intel. During his free time, Mugisha volunteers for Friends of Trees, Oregon Food Bank and Sunshine Pantry. He also often plays soccer with his siblings. 

And while he escaped the horrors of his past life, Mugisha still keeps himself up to date with news of what’s happening in his home country and other “ethnic cleansing” incidents around the world. 

“It’s just so hard for me to understand,” Mugisha said. “There are Rohingyas and Syrians who are being killed because of their religion or ethnicity. I wish people would understand them, hear their stories and find a solution instead of judging them by their labels.”

Mugisha said that when people hear “refugee,” they immediately associate it with a negative connotation. Throughout his journey, he often experiences discrimination along the way. But despite the prejudice, he manages to find his way around the situation, so that it doesn’t prevent him from achieving his goals. 

“There are some people who think I can’t do things because I have an accent, but that’s where they’re wrong,” Mugisha said. “My accent represents where I come from and that I had to work hard to get to where I am now.”