Sengabo, a refugee from Rwanda, built a new life in Albany and is helping others do the same

Francis Sengabo,

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Francis Sengabo, a refugee from Rwanda, is ready to assist people from his office at the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, known as RISSE, which he helped found.

ALBANY COUNTY — Francis Sengabo sleeps fitfully in his Albany home. He is bothered by bad dreams. Images from Rwanda — during the 1990 civil war and the 1994 genocide that followed — haunt him.

“Always in the night, I would have scared dreams … I see the soldiers … That is the hardest,” Sengabo said.

He spoke last Friday in his sun-filled office in an American foursquare on Albany’s Morris Street, next door to the towering Emmaus church.

Sengabo is the co-founder and operations director of the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, known as RISSE. As he told his life story to The Enterprise, he was frequently interrupted by a stream of new arrivals to the United States — young and old, male and female, with different skin colors, different religions, and different languages.

Sengabo was able to speak to several of them in their native tongue. He speaks five languages: Kinyarwanda, his native tongue; French, his second language; Swahili and Kirundi, both of which he learned as a refugee in Tanzania; and English, which he mastered after he came to the United States in 2007.

In recent years, Sengabo said, the intensity of his nightmares is decreasing. “It’s going down,” he said.

Sengabo’s life has been intertwined with the recent tortured history of his homeland. At age 48, he speaks of his past in quiet tones, without drama or self-pity.

He was born in northwest Rwanda in 1969, a decade after the revolution. After World War II, as Belgium continued to rule Rwanda, with a mandate from the United Nations to guide it to independence, Hutu activists began killing Tutsis, destroying their homes and causing over 100,000 to seek refuge in nearby countries.

While Belgium had originally promoted Tutsi supremacy, after the revolution, the Belgians favored the Hutu. The Belgians held a referendum in 1961 in which the country voted to end its monarchy. Waves of violence followed with the exiled Tutsis periodically attacking, and the Hutu retaliating.

“Those around the king didn’t give up,” said Sengabo. “They came back in 1990.”

Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, had taken power in a coup d’état in 1973. “I was 4 years old,” said Sengabo. “I knew only one president.”

Habyarimana was the country’s dictator until 1994 when his plane was shot down, helping to spark the Rwandan genocide.

Sengabo’s father — “a man who I love” — was a teacher and a Hutu. Sengabo’s mother was a Tutsi.

His father’s father had worked for the king’s office. “My father was going to the king regularly; maybe that’s how he met my mother,” said Sengabo. “School was open only for Tutsis at that time,” he said, but his father got a chance to go to school because of his own father’s connections.

“If Tutsis were the leader of the country, a Hutu had to be exceptional to marry a Tutsi,” said Sengabo.

“My father said for him the important thing isn’t if you are Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa,” he said, naming the three Banyarwanda peoples of Rwanda. “The important thing is being a human being.”



The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
During Community Refugee Day, Muthana Alkhazraji, left, from Iraq, and Francis Sengabo, from Rwanda, shared their stories.

As a child, through the first few grades, Sengabo went to the nearby village school. After that, he lived 70 kilometers away, roughly 43 miles, with his uncle, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, and he attended Adventists’ schools. In 1990, he graduated from the University of Rwanda with a bachelor’s degree in economics and got a job in the government’s Department of Census.

Sengabo had wanted to be a doctor because he had a passion to help others. His father, as one of the few educated people in their village, had often helped people who came to him, something Sangabo wanted to emulate.

But the government dictated courses of college study, Sengabo said, in order to meet the needs of the country.

Sengabo was set, after his university graduation, to study economics in France but, he said, “When the war started, the government cut off all scholarships.”

The year Sengabo graduated from college, half-a-million Tutsi refugees invaded Rwanda from Uganda, starting the civil war there. At first, Sengabo worked doing the census of internally displaced people and later he worked for the Red Cross, helping the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

“In 1992, I was called to work for the Red Cross ... I was called to go to help,” he said, adding, “You need to be neutral.”

He also said, “It was very, very troubling. There was a zone occupied by the rebels and a zone occupied by the government. I was supposed to work in both.”

At one point, Sengabo and a co-worker were kidnapped by rebels and interrogated every day for two weeks. “The rebels thought maybe we were sharing information with the other side, with the government,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, working with the United Nations, arranged their release. “They made an agreement that neither side would arrest us,” he said.

Of the displaced people in the camps, Sengabo said, “They were scared. They could be killed. Anyone in the zone controlled by the rebels realized they could be killed at any time.” They were frequently shot, he said. “It happened often. Even the government was doing that,” Sengabo said of the executions.

All of the youth in the rebels’ zone, from the age of 14, were enrolled in the army.

Giving an example of what he witnessed, Sengabo described how he and a co-worker, driving from a rebel zone, saw a Tutsi arrested by a government soldier. “My co-worker said, ‘We cannot leave this person alone; he will be killed.’ My co-worker called the general who said, ‘If this person is a rebel, we are going to kill him in front of you.’” It turned out the man was not a soldier and he was released.

On April 6, 1994, when the dictator Habyarimana was assassinated, his plane shot down, Sengabo happened to be in a government zone. “That was good news for me. If I had been in a rebel zone, I would have been killed … The international community gave the rebels support. I went into Tanzania with 400,000 other Rwandans.”

Sengabo explained that a river runs between Rwanda and Tanzania. “Everyone had to go over just one bridge. Other people trying to cross the river drowned … When they closed the border in Tanzania, people were in the forest.”

Without food, clean water, or medicine, over 5,000 people died, he said. Sengabo himself continued the same kind of work he had been doing in Rwanda for the Red Cross, living with international staff from April 1994 until 1996.

That year, he said, “The Rwandan government changed the passport. I lost my job because I did not have a passport.”

He went from earning $1,200 a month to $30 a month, he said. “I survived like other refugees,” he said. Food was distributed weekly and, in the beginning, there was enough to eat, he said. “Little by little, the food go down.”

Sengabo could not return to Rwanda because, he said, “They think I belong to my father’s idology.”

His parents had escaped to the Congo but he was never reunited with them. When his parents returned to Rwanda in 1998, they were killed by rebels. He learned of their death in 2001 when he talked to a truck driver in Nairobi who had been their neighbor in Rwanda. “I met another neighbor who confirmed that. When they came back, they didn’t live a week,” Sengabo said of his parents.

His three brothers also died during the war. Two of them died in jail; one of those two, a university professor, had refused to eat.

“My other brother died in 1994 when he went back in his garage and was hit by a bomb falling from the sky,” said Sengabo.

He still has two sisters living in Rwanda; both of their husbands were killed in 1996.

Sengabo does not see the deaths in his family or his grief as singular. “Each family in Rwanda lost someone in the war,” he said. “One million people died.”

But he gained some family from the war, too. “I met my wife from the Congo in refugee camp,” he said. “Her uncle was a governor in the Congo. He flew to Belgium during the war and called my wife to join him over there. My wife was looking for travel documents. In 1999, in July, her uncle died and she’s stuck in Tanzania.”

He married Justine Sengabo in 1999 in a celebration without their families.

But they have made a family of their own: a 17-year-old daughter who was 7 when the Sengabos came to this country; a 13-year-old son who was 3 when they came to the United States; and a 7-year-old daughter who was born here.

He has also found his two half-brothers. “My father was a polygamist and had two wives,” said Sengabo. “We met in the refugee camp.” One of his half-brothers is a nurse in Albany and the other lives in Australia. Sengabo went to Australia in 2014 to attend his wedding.


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
RISSE, next to the Emmaus United Methodist Church on Morris Street in Albany, helps 200 refugee and immigrant families a year learn English and get other assistance that they need.



“When I came to the United States in 2007, I was the first family from central Africa here. I did not speak English,” Sengabo said.

He spoke Friday at a Community Refugee Day sponsored with the nearby College of Saint Rose.

His brief, informative talk on the most serious of subjects was also laced with humor.

Sengabo described arriving at the Albany airport in the bitter cold without a heavy jacket — the first time he’d ever felt cold like that. “I asked … ‘Can I move to another state?’ They said, ‘You’ll be OK.’”

He also told how he and his wife were confronted with a package of hotdogs. “I tell my wife, ‘We not eat dog.’ We threw the food out. The American people eat a dog? Then it was explained to me — not a dog,” he said to appreciative laughter.

But much of what Sengabo told the 30 or so people at Friday’s forum was dead serious. He explained how he’d been a refugee for 24 years and how he missed his country.

In his new country, “Pastor Denise” Stringer started teaching him English through the Bible. When he told his kids to play outside, he related, “She said, ‘In America, you cannot do that’ … She told me to write a proposal,” which he did, in French. That was the beginning of an after-school program.

RISSE, under the direction of Rifat Filkins, a Pakistani immigrant, now helps 200 families a year learn English and get other help that they need. One of those people is Muthana Alkhazraji, a refugee from Iraq who also spoke at Friday’s forum.

He was born in Iraq in 1966 and left his country in 2006. Because he didn’t join al-Qaeda, he said, “They tried to kidnap and kill me.” His cousin was kidnapped from his home, he said, and on the second day, they delivered his dead body to his home.

“It’s dangerous because of ISIS and al-Qaeda,” he said of living in Iraq. “I feel fear. Many people feel fear.”

For six years, Alkhazraji was in Egypt — “a very beautiful country but not easy.” Through the United Nations, he came to America in 2012. “The American government helped me,” he said. He also said that RISSE had helped him to learn English and find a job. He has a wife and four children and now works as an electrician.

Sengabo likes helping newcomers to the United States. We have three principles, he said of RISSE: “We don’t talk political issues, we don’t talk religion, we don’t talk about sexual issues.”

The family-based center’s mission is to help refugees and recent immigrants build sustainable, independent lives, integrated into American life. To this end, RISSE offers after-school programs for children ages 5 to 15; a program to teach English to adults; and a family mentor program to help with housing, employment, medical services, school registration, child care, and legal issues.

Sengabo said staff members have to be constantly aware of cultural differences. For example, in helping to fill out health forms, he shocked a woman when he asked, “Are you pregnant?” In her country, if she answered, she would be killed, he explained.

In his job, Sengabo directs people to hospitals and counselors, and he often fills in as a translator. Describing cultural differences, he tells of how a “husband and wife had issues” and went to see a marriage counselor.

“They called me to translate. The counselor asked the husband, ‘Why did you marry her?’ The husband answered, ‘I saw my father marry and my grandfather marry.’”

The counselor, Sengabo explained, had expected the husband to say something like, “I loved her,” and she was going to work from there. The counselor was baffled how to proceed. “I said, ‘Tell them they need to work together because that way they can help their children.’”

Sengabo has to keep many secrets — important secrets. “For example, a refugee will say, ‘Don’t tell anybody which country I come from because my husband was a member of the government.’ She’s scared people who fled the country will seek revenge on her because of her husband,” said Sengabo.

He also helps newly arrived refugees find and keep jobs. He told of a woman from Iran doing the same job and working the same shifts but was paid $450 to her co-worker’s $500 in wages. “Francis, someone is stealing my money,” she told him. She was about to quit her job.

He made an appointment to see her manager and discovered she hadn’t, for tax purposes, listed her three children as dependents. “So she was happy,” he said, when she then took home equitable wages.

Sengabo also told the story of a worker who had to go to the hospital emergency room. “He didn’t call to tell anyone,” said Sengabo and so was considered a “no show” and lost his job.

“You have to teach them these steps,” Sengabo said of newcomers. “We’re in touch with managers … We don’t want people fired. I tell the manager, if the person does not come to work, let me know.”

Sengabo shared data with those attending the Jan. 26 forum, showing that last year 31.1 million cases of internal displacement were brought on by conflict, violence, and disasters — the equivalent of one person having to leave his or her home every second.

“Refugees typically have been traumatized for many years and their emotional burdens do not go away upon arrival in the U.S.,” he wrote “RISSE is a good place for refugees from different communities and cultures to exchange their stories, a sharing process that can help them start to address their problems.”

“The work here, to me, I don’t feel it’s work,” he told The Enterprise of helping refugees at RISSE. “I feel I have to fill a responsibility to help people. I feel better when I see a person become self-sufficient.”


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