Saturday, June 19, 2010

Refugees: Future human rights defender driven by her experiences as a refugee

Source: United Nations Radio - Nezia Munezero is a young woman on a mission. The daughter of Burundians who fled their homeland in 1972, Nezia lived in Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania before settling in the United States eight years ago. Her status as a former refugee has fuelled her dream of studying International Human Rights Law to ensure that other displaced people will know their rights. In honour of World Refugee Day, celebrated on June 20th, UN Radio's Jocelyne Sambira sat down with Nezia to learn how her past influences who she is today.

MUNEZERO: Being a refugee is not being able to live in your country due to different reasons, could be conflict. Nowadays there are refugees who flee because their lands have been flooded. It's anything, but if you cannot live in your country and you have to seek refuge in another country, you are a refugee. And in our case we had become refugees because of conflict.

SAMBIRA: Since you weren't born in Burundi can you really say you missed your homeland if you never knew it?

MUNEZERO: (Laughs) That's the thing! I usually wondered. I always considered it my homeland because I was always in a situation where I wasn't a citizen of that country until the US. So I always wondered if I missed it. It wasn't so much missing it; it was longing to see it, longing to be a part of it. And finally I got to experience that last year, 2009. So it was nice.

SAMBIRA: What was the feeling like?

MUNEZERO: It was a powerful feeling where I felt like I belonged even though it was my first time there. I felt like I could talk to anybody on the street. I felt like I could easily go on the street because they have those community markets, the stores, the markets in public, where you can go and buy whatever. So I felt like I could easily approach somebody and say 'I want this and that' in Kirundi. It was a powerful feeling that I've never had before because usually if I step foot in a new country I have to figure out how to ask for something. But this time I knew what to say, I knew what I wanted there. It was a good feeling.

SAMBIRA: You are doing a Masters in Human Rights Law, I think?

MUNEZERO: International Human Rights Law.

SAMBIRA: Is in any way the experiences that you have had as a refugee, have they shaped what you've chosen as your career?

MUNEZERO: It's actually exactly that: I chose to do it because of the life I have experienced. I did not know much about human rights before I started doing the Masters. I had read a few things. I had read the Convention for Refugees. But I also knew that the Human Rights I read about, or the human rights I'm doing in classes, or the theories or the legal documents I get to read, people don't experience that, especially in refugee camps. So I wanted to study human rights law so I can somehow bring the two together if only in my own head (laughs) and maybe be able to practice that later with people, be able to let people know what their rights are, especially refugees; let them know what they can and cannot do, and let them know that they have the rights to be able to ask even for their rights even if they won't be given to them, but at least they know what they are. And I feel like if we had grown up knowing this, things might have been different. So I want to advocate for that. That is why I went and did the Masters.

SAMBIRA: There are a lot of former refugees that are well-known today and that are celebrated. Having been there, can you sort of identify with the passion that they have in what they do? Is it that maybe the experiences that you have had, are they the ones that have given you this drive to succeed in life?

MUNEZERO: Yes, I feel like most of the things I do have come from the life I have lived. My passion for wanting to help people, my passion for wanting to speak for people who cannot speak for themselves has come from the fact that I once wished somebody could speak on my behalf. And I feel like most of the time when I do something, when I go to class or whatever I do, I feel like I am doing it because I want to be able to do it for those who can't. And I have said this before-I don't know if it makes any sense-but the people who I grew up with who cannot go to school but they wish they could go to school, and I have this opportunity to get a Masters or whatever education I can. I have the opportunity to work. And when I get that opportunity, I want to take it to a higher level because there are people who wish they had this opportunity, people I grew up with who wish they had it but they can't have it. So all of that combined make me want to do even more.

NARR: Nezia Munezero: former refugee, future lawyer, and proud Burundian-American.