Drocella Mugorewera’s Mission to Introduce Fellow Refugees to New Lives in Knoxville

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The crowd at a recent Market Square vigil in support of refugees and immigrants stood silently, but a hundred signs spoke for them: “Welcome” written in many languages, simple pictures of the Statue of Liberty, and placards that read “Build Bridges Not Walls.”

Appropriately, the event was spearheaded by Bridge Refugee Services, a nonprofit that uses donations and federal funds to help refugees establish lives in East Tennessee. Drocella Mugorewera, the tiny African-born woman who runs Bridge, was in the background, beaming as she gripped letters that the group of more than 1,000 protesters would soon deliver to their elected representatives at the Howard H. Baker Jr. United States Courthouse. Eventually, people handed around a megaphone to direct the crowd in reciting together the words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Mugorewera wasn’t holding the megaphone. She’s not a yeller. But she won’t be silent, either—that’s why she came to this country. 

When the Rwandan refugee first arrived in Knoxville in 2008, she was no longer in hiding, no longer hunted, no longer had to weigh her words. She could at last speak her mind.

She just had no one to speak it to yet.

The former national leader had been forced to leave behind her husband and five children. Arriving by plane with almost nothing, she had to figure out the American system of health care, government aid, and public transportation while looking for a job.

She did, with help from Bridge. Mugorewera had no idea that eight years later, she’d be running it. Until President Donald Trump froze U.S. acceptance of refugees two weeks ago, Bridge was projected to resettle 245 people in Knoxville, including Syrians, during fiscal 2017. About 66 have arrived since the fiscal year began in October, Mugorewera says.

However, during his first week in office, Trump followed though on campaign promises by issuing executive orders to stop refugee resettlement for 120 days, ban all visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, and ban Syrians from the U.S. indefinitely. He proposes to cut the number of refugees the U.S. will accept this year by more than half of the targets set by former President Barack Obama.

Mugorewera says Bridge has received an avalanche of support since Trump’s announcements, including many donations. Yassin’s Falafel House, owned by a Syrian refugee, held a fundraising dinner for Bridge last week, and Borderland Tees sold T-shirts printed with the Statue of Liberty and the words “Mother of Exiles” (from the statue’s famous poem “The New Colossus.”)

Mugorewera and Susan Speraw, the chairperson of the Bridge board, wrote an open letter to the community early last week asking supporters to sign a petition and lobby their elected officials to rescind the refugee order. The letter states that the order “will seriously impede our resettlement program, affecting more than 400 refugees who were resettled in Knoxville and Chattanooga during the past year” and hundreds more who remain dependent on Bridge for ongoing guidance.

“United we must stand, in the face of this executive order,” the letter states. “We cannot allow irrational fears in the president’s office to guide decisions being made about people who are fleeing to save their lives and those of their children.”

“Working with refugees and immigrants is a blessing,” Mugorewera says. “America is a nation of immigrants.”

The 53-year-old has a dignified, reserved manner that is often abruptly breached by a bright smile. She is confident that the more Americans actually get to know the immigrants in their community, the more they will recognize the common dreams and aspirations of humanity.

“The way to get out of fear is to get engaged in actions,” she says. “Actions will cure fear.”

She is that rare person who lives her own advice.

Tricia Bateman

At a meet-and-greet event sponsored by Bridge Refugee Services, a refugee teen spoke to a group of her peers.

Growing up Rwandan

Drocella Mugorewera grew up the fifth of nine children in Byumba, Rwanda. Her father was a carpenter and her mother supervised workers on the family farm, where they raised cattle and grew vegetables.

Her mother instilled a strong work ethic. When the kids came home from school to eat lunch, they were expected to squeeze in time to clean the yard, fetch water, or take food to the farm workers before heading back to lessons.

“It encouraged me to be hardworking and loving people,” Mugorewera says. “My mom always said, ‘Do good. You’ll find kindness ahead.’”

Mugorewera received a scholarship to attend college in the U.S.S.R., which had a cooperative agreement with Rwanda, and she earned a degree in agronomy. While she was away, her mother died. Mugorewera returned to Rwanda upon graduation and started working for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. But shortly afterward, her life—like the lives of everyone in her country—was brutally interrupted by the Rwandan civil war and subsequent genocide as the ethnic Hutu and Tutsi tribes fought for power.

During four months in 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority massacred at least 800,000 Tutsis, the tribe that had been the ruling minority. Through military action, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front was able to gain control of the country, leading to reprisals and an exodus of mostly-Hutu people to refugee camps in neighboring countries.

Mugorewera prefers not to identify her tribe. (In fact, it’s now illegal to discuss ethnicity in Rwanda.) “I’m Rwandan,” she says. “And now I’m American.”

Mugorewera lost her sister and brother-in-law during the war, and afterward adopted their three young daughters. She doesn’t like to talk about what she saw.

“Every family lost siblings and relatives, and sometimes you do not know where they are buried,” she says. “I fled to Congo. But I had to go back. I said, ‘I have to be part of building my country.’”

She was soon working on policy in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, then agriculture. Rwanda’s economy is dominated by farming, but farmers’ seeds had been mostly destroyed or eaten during the war.

“We had to research and collaborate with neighboring countries to get more seeds and recover the seed systems,” she says. “Extensionists [like cooperative extension agents in the U.S.] had fled or were killed. We had to reorganize farmers.”

Over and above this work, Mugorewera was to play a more direct role in rebuilding Rwanda. A coalition government was formed to run the country until general elections. Mugorewera was appointed to the Rwandan Transitional Parliament by the Christian Democratic Party in 2000, and was thus able to play a role in writing the new constitution. It makes no reference to ethnicity and requires that women hold at least 30 percent of government authority positions at the local and national levels. When it comes to women’s equality, the Rwandan government is now generally recognized as more progressive than America’s.

Those gender requirements “are one of the things I’m proudest of in contributing to the constitutional process,” Mugorewera says.

In the years that followed, she held top positions in the government ministries dealing with the environment and forestry, then became Minister of Lands and Environment. Mugorewera made headlines internationally when Rwanda outlawed plastic bags in an effort to clean up its cities, and she publicly equated protecting the environment with protecting democracy.

Expressing her convictions led her to fall from favor with the ruling party, Mugorewera says. She left government for consulting work in 2006.

“Democracy is not good there,” she says. “I’m not a ‘yes’ person. I like to exercise my right to free debate.”

For a year she continued speaking out, while the government began to consider her an enemy.

“I did try to endure,” she says. “Then I had direct threats on my life.”

As she left for an international conference on strategies to protect the Nile River, she says, “something happened, and I had to choose between life and death.” She stayed after the Ugandan conference and applied for protection through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

She had nothing except the clothes she had packed for a three-day trip, her Bible, and her crucifix. She says there was no chance to talk to her family before deciding to flee. 

“I fled without any direction,” she says. “But on the way, there were people helping.”

She hid in Kenya for almost nine months, awaiting approval to go somewhere farther away. She was too much of a public figure to be safe in that part of Africa. The U.N. connected her with the U.S. Embassy.

During this time, she sent messages to her family through friends to let them know she was safe, but they were unable to talk.

Her husband began making arrangements to follow her through a program that reunites refugee families. But to bring the children in the long run, he would have to leave them first. The youngest was 13.

Mugorewera arrived in Knoxville in March 2009, and her husband followed in June. (A banker in Rwanda, he repeated much of his education here and now works for an accounting firm.) They had to decide whether to send the kids to Kenya to stay with a person they barely knew.

“My husband was hesitating to send them there,” she recalls. “It was not easy. You have five children—who do you trust?” On top of that, some of those children weren’t technically hers, although she had raised them from infancy, and the U.N. waffled on whether to let them join Mugorewera.

By then, at least, she could talk to them on the phone and encourage them.

“As a parent, it’s a feeling like you abandoned your children,” she says, her voice cracking. She looks at her lap. “I told them, ‘I’m sorry for abandoning you.’ They say, ‘Don’t worry. You did the right thing.’”

Indeed, almost two years after their separation, Mugorewera was reunited with her children in Knoxville. They have all graduated from Catholic High School.

“One of my dreams was for my children to graduate from college, and they are now,” she says, her face glowing. Her youngest finishes in May. Her son is working on his MBA at the University of Tennessee, and a daughter is planning to pursue a master’s degree in international business. Her other children have careers as a flight attendant, a nurse, and a human resources manager.

Mugorewera has been proud to be able to help make these options possible for her children, even if it meant losing some options for herself. Americans who think refugees want to move here just to have a better lifestyle don’t understand what they give up. “Imagine being able to go to any country but your home,” says Mugorewera, blinking away tears. “I wish I could have been there when my father died.”

Despite these regrets, Mugorewera thrives by focusing relentlessly on what she can do, not what she can’t.

“They took away my country. Now I have a new country. And I learn from it,” she says. “I restore what was stolen from me.”

At a Bridge work session, greetings were written on cards to be placed in welcome baskets for newly arrived refugees.

Becoming American

When Mugorewera arrived in Knoxville, Bridge prepared her way. Her case manager met her at the airport along with members of Northside Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who welcomed her and took to her to an apartment. Churches in town often sponsor new arrivals, regardless of their religious affiliation, providing furniture, clothing, and help navigating schools and other government systems.

The Rev. Frits Haverkamp at Northside Christian explains that the church felt called to work with Bridge because Jesus was a refugee and it is important for Christians to “engage our faith in the civic world.” Church coordinators had to be flexible, because they don’t learn who is arriving until a day or so beforehand, and they had to take a leap of faith as they co-signed on Mugorewera’s apartment lease.

“It’s a little like yoga. It makes you stretch,” Haverkamp says. “There’s a sense that we’re risking. It’s a kind of dangerous journey. It’s really an act of trust.”

Haverkamp says the church received blessings in exchange: Long-term relationships with Mugorewera’s family, and the example of their courage and faith. “I don’t think I ever heard her complain,” he says of Mugorewera. “She had such a belief that things were going to get better.”

As soon as she’d slept, “The first thing I say is, ‘I need to go to church,’” Mugorewera recalls. Being unable to worship the entire time she was in hiding made the entire experience that much harder.

“They took me to the Catholic church for confession and communion. It was like taking a shower,” she recalls. One of the first phone numbers she learned was the church bus driver’s.

That led to an early step in finding a role for herself in America. “When I started to ride with them, they said there were some other international church members they were having trouble communicating with, and I could help,” she says. Mugorewera speaks Kinyarwanda, English, French, Russian—and Kirundi, the language spoken by many Burundian refugees who attend Holy Ghost Catholic Church with her.

The two churches provided her with a community. “When you go to a new country, you do not have a friend. You do not know the culture,” she says. “It helped me to know I have someone to help me navigate the system. That was very significant for me.”

Mugorewera’s apartment on the north side of town was within walking distance of a library, which quickly became one of her favorite things about the United States. “When I was saying I needed Internet, some people think that’s a luxury, but it’s not,” she says. “I’m cut off from all my family and friends. It’s the only way I can communicate with them.”

Bridge helped Mugorewera find a job with Goodwill—but in Farragut. She relied on church friends to give her rides to and from work and pick up her kids from school. Carol Lougheed was one of them. Lougheed recalls being bothered that such an educated woman had to work at Goodwill for minimum wage.

“I think people are afraid of what they don’t know, so when someone looks, speaks, or acts different, their fear level goes up, especially in Tennessee. These people in Tennessee are gracious people, but they’re slow to open their hearts unless someone they know introduces that outsider to them,” Lougheed says. “Drocella was easy to introduce around because she has a very vibrant personality. She wants the rest of the refugees who come here have the same opportunities: People to welcome them and look after them like they’re family.”

Lougheed has seen Mugorewera translate for new families in the church as well as for established immigrants during times of stress. Mugorewera has shared African prayer dance and other worship traditions with her new congregation and led talks about Africa’s struggle for clean water. When Habitat for Humanity volunteers built a house for Mugorewera’s family, she used the opportunity to educate volunteers, including University of Tennessee football players, about Africa and refugee systems.

“I think by sharing her struggles, and Africa’s struggles—why people need to come here—I think it has helped with understanding,” Lougheed says.

Mugorewera was promoted to a supervisory position at Goodwill, then got a job working with seniors and disabled people. Bridge provided her a car, which expanded her options. But she badly wanted to return to her field of expertise. Many refugees experience great frustration and sadness at being unable to use their professional training in America because of certifications, degrees, or English proficiency. They find themselves stuck with menial work when they know they could offer more.

Drocella Mugorewera introduces fellow refugees to new lives in Knoxville. Drocella Mugorewera was a refugee herself, arriving in Knoxville in 2008 with nothing. Now she is the director of the agency that helped her resettle here: Bridge Refugee Services.

Mugorewera had to find someone in the Ukraine to track down her college transcript so she could apply for a job at the UT Extension Service. She didn’t get that one, but when a church member noticed her language skills it opened the door to a more challenging job as a multicultural and refugee manager at Cherokee Health.

Cherokee is a federally-funded clinic that provides many refugees with medical and behavioral care and case management.

“We deal a lot with reducing barriers to housing and medical care,” says Lynn Goan, who has been a case manager since 1971 and who worked with Mugorewera at Cherokee. “We have to key in on what are the roadblocks, and she has very good instinct about that. She was amazing, speaking so many different languages, and having such good instincts about people and their situations and their abilities, the things that are challenging to them.”

Many refugees were missing appointments because of their poor understanding of English. Mugorewera started helping them learn the process and recognized communication failures that were risking people’s health, like patients who were unable to read medicine labels. (The clinic started adding pictograms to make it clearer when and how often to take medicine.)

“She has touched hundreds and hundreds of lives,” Goan says. Even after Mugorewera left the job, new Cherokee employees are taught her methods for working effectively with refugees.

While working at Cherokee, Mugorewera attained U.S. citizenship. She was asked to represent the refugee community on a panel interviewing candidates to be Bridge’s next executive director. But the first round of candidates all dropped out.

She thought: Why shouldn’t I apply? She put together a presentation about her vision for improving the organization. (Among many other things, that includes encouraging businesses and other civic organizations besides churches to sponsor arriving refugees.)

Mugorewera has now been running Bridge for more than a year. Her own experience as a refugee gives her insights that have led to new Bridge programs, for example focusing on helping professionals re-enter their fields and creating support groups among new refugees and established arrivals.

“It’s not easy to be forced to leave your country, but also I take this as an opportunity,” Mugorewera says. “With 20 more years of active life, I can motivate people and change the world.”

Her ability to bring together local government, church, and business leaders to network and brainstorm has created an infectious energy that is doubly important now that she must shepherd the organization through a disturbing, difficult time created by Trump’s refugee policy. Many Bridge clients left behind family members they had hoped would be able to follow them, and they are in need of consolation and comfort.

But she believes they will get it. As Mugorewera surveyed the sea of protesters outside the City-County Building last Wednesday, she was satisfied but not surprised.

“I expected this,” she said. “This is Tennesseans. This is who we are.”

Get Involved

Bridge Refugee Services needs volunteers, sponsors, and employers to help resettle refugees in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Learn more at: bridgerefugees.org or call 865-540-1311

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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