Twin sisters Jocelyne Butoyi Alexandre and Josephine Burkuru-Murphy have seen too much evil in their young lives.
During the so-called 100 days of genocide in 1994, some 800,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were murdered following the killing of the Hutu Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana.
Several hundred thousand children were left orphaned and homeless as a result.
Alexandre and Burkuru-Murphy, who are Tutsis, were born in a refugee camp in the bordering country of Burundi. They moved to Rwanda in 1994 and were personally affected by the genocide.
Their brothers fought against the Hutus. One of them, Jules, survived despite being shot numerous times and left for dead. He remained in a coma for three months.
One day, while the sisters were on their way to school, they heard bullets zinging all around them.
“Bullets were so close to my ears, I couldn’t hear for about a week,” Burkuru-Murphy said.
Another day, while they were on their way to church, Hutu soldiers barked at them, “We’re going to fry you in a big tank of oil.”
“(It was) because of who we were, not because of anything we had done,” Alexandre explains.
“We don’t hate you,” the girls replied.
This is the message the 33-year-old sisters shared over the course of six days in Newfoundland in April — the power of love over hate.
They emigrated to Canada in 1997. In 2005, they returned to Rwanda for a visit and were overwhelmed by what Alexandre calls “the burden, after seeing kids all over the streets, hungry. With that wakeup call of who we used to be, we came back (to Canada), like, ‘We have to do something.’”
A year later, they co-founded Shelter Them, a Christian charitable organization dedicated to helping orphans and vulnerable children in Rwanda get the basics of life.
“Our mission is to take the lost children of Rwanda from the streets and give them hope,” Alexandre says.
They live in Brampton, Ont., “five minutes from each other,” Alexandre says.
Both work full-time, devoting their spare time to Shelter Them.
“It takes up a lot of time,” Alexandre admits.
Shelter Them sponsors several programs, including a Ngondo orphanage and Kanombe house, along with boys’ and girls’ homes.
Their 100 Days of Change Campaign began April 7 and runs to July 17, in commemoration of the horrific 100 days of genocide in Rwanda. It consists of collecting loose change in a jar and using it to fund the sisters’ humanitarian programs.
Alexandre explains how the idea for the campaign came about.
“Realizing the 100 days of genocide was such a dark moment, I thought to myself, what can I do to bring hope and brightness to people’s hearts? How about using the change in my pocket to change the kids’ lives?”
The idea is catching on, especially in Newfoundland.
The sisters’ connection with the province began in 2008.
Dave and Sherry Jenkins of Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, saw them on a TV program. The Jenkins, who lead the Victoria United Church youth group, were moved by their inspiring story. They decided to host a fundraiser on behalf of the girls’ ministry, and raised $10,000.
Last year, they collected $33,000.
The Jenkins have a special bond with the women.
“They’re like family, my children,” Sherry explains as her voice breaks.
“I feel kind of responsible for them. When they hurt, I hurt. They changed my life. That’s why I cry.”
While in Newfoundland, Alexandre and Burkuru-Murphy spoke at churches in Victoria and Bay Roberts, as well as at schools in Old Perlican and St. John’s, and set up an information table at the TC Square shopping centre in Carbonear.
Despite their personal ordeal, the sisters have a keen sense of humour. They also remain positive in their outlook on life.
Alexandre says, “I think that in combination with faith in God we need to accept certain things and move forward, take them as an opportunity to change and grow. If you don’t, you’ll die inside and won’t be able to go on with life.
“It’s a choice I made. So this is happening. I can’t change it, so what can I do to get better?”
There are going to be few spare moments for them in the future. Alexandre wants to work full-time helping needy children in Rwanda, Burundi and even Canada.
“That’s where I see myself,” she says. “The total transformation of children, especially in Rwanda.”
Burkuru-Murphy adds, “We have quite a few of the same goals. Honestly, I could do this for free. It’s the joy of my life.”