At a Jesuit High School, a Child of Genocide Finds His Voice

By William Bole

March 18, 2016 — Like many refugee children, Irenee Nkera didn’t have the brightest prospects in life when he and his family arrived in Buffalo, New York, in the dead of winter. His parents, with their three daughters and 7-year-old Irenee, had fled the chaos of post-genocide Rwanda just weeks earlier, in 2006.

Irenee Nkera with his sisters.

“We didn’t know anyone. We didn’t have anything. We couldn’t speak English. And we were cold,” says Nkera, now a senior at Canisius High School, a Jesuit college preparatory school in Buffalo. “It was shocking.”

A decade later, Nkera has an altogether different and ordinary set of anxieties. Like millions of other high school seniors, he is waiting to hear back from selective colleges and universities about acceptance to those schools as well as scholarships and financial aid. The young man plans to major in business and finance.

Doors have opened for Nkera in no small part because of Jesuit secondary education. With 875 students and a challenging curriculum, Canisius High not only accepted him but also helped his family substantially with costs. The school’s mission is rooted in a desire to make a Jesuit education available to all qualified students. And so, Canisius welcomes refugees like Nkera along with a larger number of students from underserved neighborhoods.

Nkera with Fr. David Ciancimino, SJ, president of Canisius High School. (Elliott Jerge, Canisius High School Class of 2016)

Each year the recruitment brings new students from the margins of society into a private prep school. There, they find not just a rigorous academic environment but also vital support and affirmation. They are encouraged to share their stories with other students — all of them boys.

The broad and diverse tent at Canisius is part of what Jesuits have referred to as “the faith that does justice.” Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, has called on Catholics to “head for the periphery” and find solidarity at the margins with the poor, elderly, immigrants and others. Aid to refugees is a particular priority of the Society of Jesus. The religious order sponsors the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization now waging a campaign to provide education to refugees worldwide.

Nkera (left) with fellow Canisius High students. (Elliott Jerge, Canisius High School Class of 2016)

Fr. David Ciancimino, SJ, the school’s president, notes that the 10 or so refugees currently enrolled at the school and their families have fled countries ranging from Burma and Cambodia to South Sudan and Ethiopia. “They’re hard-working. They’re faith-filled. And they have a strong sense of where they come from,” the Jesuit says.

Fr. Ciancimino points to the often-hostile rhetoric surrounding the issue of immigrants and refugees in American politics. “It really weighs heavily on some of our kids,” he says. “We try to get the message to our other students that until you know someone’s story, you can’t make broad judgments. They [the refugee families] left for reasons.”

The message comes from the immigrant students themselves. They and others share their experiences of life at the margins in classroom discussions, during off-site retreats and in other settings. The conversations are for the benefit of all students, not just those from the social periphery.

Nkera (front row, fourth from right), on a Canisius High retreat.

“If you’re from the suburbs, you might never meet a kid whose family fled their homeland,” says Fr. Ciancimino. He adds that the exposure to peers who have endured great hardship helps build “a culture of gratitude” among all students.

Among those bearing the brunt of political rhetoric in this election year are Muslims in the United States. They, too, form a distinct presence at Canisius. Across from the president’s office is a sparely furnished room with a rug. It’s where some of the Muslim students come to pray daily, often during recess, lunchtime or after school. There is also a bathroom off to the side where these students take part in the Muslim ritual of ablutions.

A Refugee Speaks Up

Founded in 1870, Canisius High is one of 63 Jesuit high schools in the United States and Canada (with all but three of those in the U.S.).

“We want every student in our school communities to understand the world and learn that they are global citizens,” says Fr. William Muller, SJ, president of the Jesuit Schools Network of North America, based in Washington, D.C. “It’s not just about awareness. It’s about responsibility for the world and the people in it.”

Nkera at Canisius High. (Elliott Jerge, Canisius High School Class of 2016)

Justice and related values are woven into the vision of what a graduate of a Jesuit high school should be, by the time of graduation. Encapsulated in what is known as the “Grad at Grad” document, the five principles include “open to growth,” “intellectually competent,” “religious,” “loving,” and “committed to doing justice.”

At Canisius, all graduating seniors must deliver a “Grad at Grad” presentation describing how they’ve developed during their high school years. They do so after a period of discernment guided by a mentor such as a teacher, campus minister or some other adult. Irenee Nkera gave a slide presentation to his religion class in late January, offering a glimpse into how this Jesuit high school changed his life as a refugee child.

There’s a YouTube video of the 9-minute presentation, consisting of photographs and voice-over narration by Nkera.

It begins with these stark words: “I was born in a small country called Rwanda. Rwanda is known for its genocide. The genocide was between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus hated the Tutsis and began slaughtering them. My family are Tutsis.” Tracking his words are images that include a disturbing photo of a killing field in Rwanda.

Nkera with his mom (center) and sisters.

Nkera tells of his family’s arrival in Buffalo, how he and his sisters huddled together at their Catholic elementary school and spoke to no one else. He gradually began mixing with other students, but at a steep price. “I was losing part of myself. I forgot my language, customs, forgot everything that made me, me.”

A turning point in the narration has to do with the retreats Nkera attended at Canisius beginning in his sophomore year. All students are encouraged to step up and tell their stories at those gatherings, and Nkera, who describes himself as characteristically shy and withdrawn, did just that.

Nkera (second from right) on retreat with fellow Canisius High students.

“I was able to talk to people without being judged or looked down upon. It [the retreat] gave me an opportunity to talk about my problems with people I hardly knew,” says Nkera, who had also begun running track for the school’s team.

By the end of the presentation, the pictures tell an uplifting story. One of them shows Nkera and high school classmates on a beach at a lakeside retreat house, with broad smiles and arms draped over each other’s shoulders. Others portray him and his sisters gleaming with hope, as the voice-over gives way to Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

Nkera says the retreats — plus service trips to places such as New Orleans and other school experiences — gave him “a positive attitude toward life.” Most of all, he finally embraced his own story as a Rwandan-born refugee whose family emerged from genocide.

Nkera (center) with Canisius High classmates.

“Life experiences are invaluable, whether they are good or bad,” the college-bound senior explains in his video. “Invaluable — because mine have shaped me into the person I am today.”

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