Mireille Twayigira was barely three years old when her father was killed in the genocide that riddled Rwanda and brought the country down to its knees in 1994.
And, saddled on her mother’s back, together with her grandfather, uncle and a handful of relatives, they headed south in search of sanctuary, landing in the volatile Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where her mother died in a refugee camp.
But when war broke out in the region three years later, the group found itself navigating the dangerous terrain of southern DRC, heading further south, past Zambia and into Malawi, finally ending up at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa, 50 kilometres north-west of Lilongwe.
Dzaleka Refugee Camp is a dust bowl of activity, the grass-thatched adobe houses reflecting the temporary nature of these shelters and their inhabitants.
There is hunger, desolation and hopelessness written all over the faces of the residents here, a miscellany of immigrants escaping the deadly conflicts in the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.
Yet, amid this despair and dearth, the 24-year-old glimmers like a beacon of hope, exuding a childlike and contagious smile that hides the years of pain and gloom hidden under her petite frame.
All things being equal, Mireille says she should have died in the genocide in Rwanda or the war in DRC. But she survived both atrocities. And for a purpose too.
In October this year, she graduated as a medical doctor at Shandong University in China after six years of studies.
A Chinese Embassy scholarship administered by private broadcaster Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) enabled her to pursue the studies after she scored perfect grades in the Malawi Secondary Certificate of Education (MSCE) exams at Likuni Girls Secondary School.
But although her story is nothing short of a miracle, Mireille’s achievements do not come as a surprise to those who have seen her grow.
According to her uncle Michael Mahoro, who adopted her after her grandfather died at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in 2007, her primary school teachers at Umodzi Katupya Primary School to community leaders in the camp, Mireille has always been an A-student.
Mahoro says his niece started showing character from an early age.
“She was always hard-working and we did not really need to push her for her to succeed. She has always been self-motivated,” he said.
Hope is the underlying current in this community of over 20 000 asylum seekers. Here, in this desolation, the residents hope that someday, things will change and a brighter day will emerge.
They pray for a possibility of normal life outside the refugee camp.
And, for them, there is no better place where hope manifests itself than in Mireille-the girl who survived two wars and lived to graduate as a doctor.
Mireille has become a reluctant celebrity in the community, constantly attracting attention and spontaneous fits of greetings from the jubilant villagers-exclaiming in a mixture of gaudy Swahili and her native kwinyarwanda.
Her ability to make a life out of difficult circumstances has inspired many to want to follow her path.
Fellow refugees, 10-year-old Mugisha now wants to be a doctor, as 11-year-old Josiane Kubwalo, so, does Jane Arnelle Fabian. They view Mireille as a trailblazer who has shown strength of mind beyond her age.
But Mireille does not let this get to her head, refusing to let all this extolling distract her from her goal.
“For me, I know from deep down my heart this was God. Because how can you explain a refugee girl finding herself in China and graduating as a medical doctor at the age of 24 while others have been staying in the camp for many years without having such an opportunity? So, for me, it’s really God,” she explains, her voice jerking with emotion.
She pauses in reflection, momentarily shifting her gaze into a non-existent distant object, wipes an imaginary teardrop before she recollects herself to continue:
“All this-coming from Rwanda, what we went through until we found ourselves in Malawi, getting six points-all this is really God. I believe my life is a testimony of how great God is.
“Because if you look at my life, there are several points where I should have died, but I did not. I cannot call that just fate, my whole life, everything that has happened, it is God.”
Mireille is currently back at Dzaleka Refugee Camp as she awaits her attachment posting at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre.
But in the midst of all her reverence, the young refugee-doctor is grateful for the opportunity that her adopted country has accorded her.
“It is a privilege to have people who really want you to be part of them,” she says of Malawi, after the country granted her citizenship that allowed her to pursue her studies.
“Before that, I was a refugee and I had no status. Of course, I was born Rwandese, but I didn’t have a Rwandan passport, I could not travel anywhere, I was just here.
“So, it is really a privilege for me to be called Malawian, to have a nation I can represent. I can take my passport and visit places. For me, to be given this chance, I am really grateful,” she says. n