After living in refugee camps for eight years, Mason student strives for peace in Burundi

Isidore Nsengiyumva
First-generation college student, Isidore Nsengiyumva. Photo provided.

Isidore Nsengiyumva, only four years old at the time, was in the fields with his father and older brother in Burundi, when suddenly they heard the sound of motors and guns. Troops involved in the country’s civil war attacked their village, and rapidly, their lives were changed.

“We hid in a bush, and when the noise of the guns and fighting subsided, we went back and found our home burned,” Nsengiyumva said. “That’s when my dad decided it was no longer safe.”

The family fled to a commune for shelter, Nsengiyumva said. A few months later, his father found someone to take them to Tanzania, where they lived in refugee camps from 1996 to 2004.

“Going through civil war and many other atrocities, we’ve seen the hand of military institutions [when they dismiss their duties] to protect the integrity, territory and people of Burundi,” Nsengiyumva said, adding that some extended family did not survive the refugee journey.

Nsengiyumva's father. "My dad has a primary school education and later trained as a mason," Nsengiyumva said. "He used his skills extensively in the refugee camps in Tanzania to build houses for local populations. He taught me the power of hope, love of family and resilience in the face of adversity." 

“I want to contribute to a more peaceful Burundi where uniformed personnel discharge their roles for the good of everyone,” he said. “I’m hoping with my education at [George Mason University] and the skills I learn in the mass atrocity and genocide prevention [graduate program], I can contribute to enlightening my colleagues, and in that way, contribute to keeping peace.”

Nsengiyumva, an officer in the Burundi National Defense Force, is a Charles E. Scheidt Fellow at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He said he’s taking his courses online from Kenya, and is grateful for the opportunity.

“I’m learning with people from diverse backgrounds all over the world, and get to share my experiences,” he said, mentioning the school’s global prestige. “I’m not sure I could have that opportunity any other way—Mason gives me that.”

Nsengiyumva said joining the military was his childhood dream, as boys in the refugee camps were taught a love of country. It was also his ticket to education, the first-generation college student said.

Some of Nsengiyumva’s educational opportunities included studying at the University of Burundi, earning a scholarship to study engineering in Ethiopia, and a scholarship from the African Union to pursue a graduate degree in electrical engineering at the Pan-African University (PAU).

He said he learned about Mason at PAU, and the Carter School is likewise opening doors for him.

In particular, Nsengiyumva said he’s learning mediation and facilitation skills, which have practical applications for his professional and personal life.

“Isidore approaches each subject with curiosity, is supportive of his co-learners, and is able to apply theory to practice,” said Mason adjunct professor Jeanne Zimmer. “His background and experience coupled with his learnings through Mason will enable him to effect social-justice change on the micro and macro levels.”

Outside of class, Nsengiyumva said being a first-generation student and his experiences have taught him a lot, including a lesson on hope and never giving up, which his father helped instill in him.

“Nsengiyumva means ‘God hears,’” he said. “Not only going to Mason, but having made it as far as I have, I feel I’ve had the grace of God throughout—it’s given me confidence that whatever my mind conceives, I can probably achieve.”

From left to right: Nsengiyumva's Aunt Anesie and his mother in 2019. "My mom did not have a formal education, was only trained in embroidery, and later gave it up to focus on farming and household responsibilities," Nsengiyumva said. "The most important lesson from her was that I need only two things in life: good health and peace of mind--amahoro, we call it in Kirundi."