'It's my home' - Mum who fled Rwandan genocide on life in Norfolk

Illuminée Nganemariya at Anglesey Abbey Cambridge

Illuminée Nganemariya at Anglesey Abbey Cambridge - Credit: Paul Dickson

As people displaced by war seek safety on British soil, we speak with a mum who fled the Rwandan genocide and settled in Norfolk 25 years ago, about how she found refuge in the county.

For Illuminée Nganemariya life in Norfolk is a far different world in comparison to the unimaginable violence she and her son Roger faced in 1994.

The mum, who lives in Norwich, has found "peace" and identity in British culture after moving to the UK in September 1996.

She has recounted the torment she has faced along the way and also the highs and lows of settling in the county.

Her harrowing experience is something that she is not able to forget.

Illuminée Nganemariya has been living in Norfolk for around 25 years.

Illuminée Nganemariya has been living in Norfolk for around 25 years. - Credit: Paul Dickson

A young Tutsi bride at the time, she had protected her newborn son through the bloody genocide and endured 100 days of "living hell" in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, after watching her husband dragged away and killed by neighbours who had celebrated their wedding a month earlier.

Confronted with the prospect that they too could be brutally murdered every single morning, Illuminée was faced with no option but to leave all that she knew behind with just the clothes on her back and her child.

She has since built a new life in Norwich and eventually became a British citizen in 2004.

Illuminee and Roger looking forward to a bright future in Norwich in 2007. Photo: Simon Finlay

Illuminee and Roger looking forward to a bright future in Norwich in 2007. Photo: Simon Finlay - Credit: Archant © 2007

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Illuminée said: "I like British culture.

"It seems strange but I don't count myself as Rwandese. I feel British inside of me.

"I still feel here is home for me, even not having many friends, but when I put the key inside my door and go inside my house I feel peaceful. I can do my own thing.

"When I go back to Rwanda, I don't feel home."

She added when she arrived in Norwich she received a warm welcome by everyone and expressed her gratitude to those who supported her through that period.

Although a place of refuge for both mum and son, life in the county has not come without its challenges.

Miracle in Kigali by Illuminee Nganemariya with Paul Dickson

Miracle in Kigali by Illuminee Nganemariya with Paul Dickson - Credit: supplied

The sheer trauma of the events has left Illuminée with PTSD, and mental health struggles have seen her receive treatment at Hellesdon Hospital to help, as she puts it, "get the ghosts out of her head".

And she explained how Roger had experienced racism and had been beaten when he was around 10 years old, during her time when she was sectioned at the hospital.

She had struggled in the education system and had tried to study cooking to be a chef and later management but was told to "go and learn your GCSE's".

"That was a horrible feeling", she said.

"I'm still struggling because the talent I've got it, I don't use it."

She has dedicated more than 15 years of her life to volunteering and working for local charities and organisations including Oxfam, the YMCA, the Samaritans and Help for Heroes. 

But now relies on her partner Paul Dickson after coming away from the work following her struggles.

On the subject of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees fleeing violence and settling in the county, she said: "People should give them a chance, don't hurt their feelings.

"They should give them a warm welcome and even if you don't have much to give them just talk to them nicely.

"When you left your house you left your house. It's a horrible feeling. With me I left with just my child."

She added Mr Dickson has been a great source of support for her through the years.

Gee Cook, chief executive of Norwich-based charity New Routes Integration, which supports the wellbeing and ambitions of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, said Norfolk has a "proud history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers", dating back to the 16th century.

Geo Cook, chief executive of Norwich-based charity New Routes Integration

Gee Cook, chief executive of Norwich-based charity New Routes Integration - Credit: Courtesy of Gee Cook

She said that commitment has been reiterated, with Norfolk intending to continue welcoming people through government resettlement schemes,  including Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the British forces in Afghanistan in the last 20 years, and the Ukrainian resettlement scheme

The CEO said: "Between 2017 and 2021, around 150 refugees from Syria have been resettled in Norwich under the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

"There are around 150 asylum seekers housed in Norwich at any one time."

She added as an organisation they have urged the Home Office to "speedily expand a safe, legal and direct route for resettlement" for Afghans who are at risk of reprisals by the Taliban.

She said: "Similarly, the atrocities in Ukraine are resulting in many fleeing persecution and, again, we hope that Norwich will offer safety and refuge."

Illuminée and Roger's story has been written in a book named 'Miracle in Kigali, The Rwandan Genocide - a survivor's journey' by Illuminée Nganemariya with Paul Dickson. For more information and to purchase the book visit pauldicksonbooks.co.uk/miracle-in-kigali