Ernest Dushime was just a young boy but he remembers the moment with absolute clarity.
His mother rides past him on a bike and as she does so he waves at her.
It is also one of the last memories he has of her, because a few hours later she was taken from their home and killed.
“I didn’t know that was my last wave,” Dushime said.
At the time, Dushime was living in the African country of Burundi when his mother was killed by rebels. Already without his father, he and his many siblings were now without their mother.
“My mom was my hero,” he said. “That wave on that bike was the only thing I can still remember and it was the last thing.”
When Dushime was 11, he, along with seven of his siblings, came to Canada as sponsored refugees. Now 21, Dushime is a student at Vancouver Island University, where he is studying social work and enjoying life.
“I can’t complain,” he said.
His was one of three gripping stories shared by refugees Tuesday night at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre as part of a public event called Stories of Migration. The event was an opportunity for members of the public to hear stories and ask questions of the three refugees.
Hosted by Vancouver Island University as part of its International Development Week celebrations, Stories of Migration speakers included Feras Saedam, a Palestinian refugee who now lives in Nanaimo with his family, and Hamdi Aweys, a VIU student who spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Speaking to a near-capacity crowd, Dushime told the audience how he and his siblings were able to survive without their father, who was also killed by rebels. He said losing his mother was extremely difficult.
“Losing my hero wasn’t something that I was really ready for,” he said. “Even today, sometimes I think about it and I start crying because she was everything.”
Aweys was born in Somalia but spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya after her family was forced to flee due to war. In 2013, she was sponsored by VIU’s branch of World University Service of Canada and is now a third-year student at the university.
“I lost my dad and two of my cousins,” Aweys said.
For Saedam and his family, the pathway to Canada was a bit different. They spent years as Palestinian refugees, before heading to Iraq and eventually to Syria and Turkey.
“It was a horrific time,” Saedam said.
Eventually, Saedam and his wife and children were sponsored and arrived in Nanaimo in 2014. Today, Saedam is now a freelance journalist who has written about refugee issues for publications including the Hamilton Spectator.
Dushime, said he, like many refugees, have endured struggles unimaginable to westerners.
“Lots of people see you as a broken man and it is true you are broken,” he said. “But we don’t want to be fixed. We want to be included.”