The genocide that began in 1994 in Rwanda took from Chantal Kayitesi most of the people who mattered to her, except her son. Determined to help others in her situation, Chantal joined a group of women and together they founded AVEGA, an organization established to address the many needs of genocide widows, many of whom had also been raped, stripped of all family, and left to count their losses while they themselves clung tentatively to life.
“Women lost everything,” Chantal says, as if the word could possibly encompass their layers of suffering.“At the same time, their homes were taken and their belongings stolen.The majority of women didn’t go to school and they suddenly found themselves needing to work to survive.”
At AVEGA, where Chantal was the vice president then president, women received counseling for their grief, medical attention for their wounds, and help in their search for a home.The organization also provided startup funds to help women develop small businesses and assistance with making their voices heard within the legal system.
Having trained as a nurse and equipped with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in public health, Chantal was well qualified for this work. Her determination and advocacy for Rwandan widows took her in 1995 to Beijing as part of a delegation that represented AVEGA. While in Rwanda, she also founded and was a member of a coalition that advocated for qualifying rape and other forms of sexual violence committed during the genocide as a crime against humanity. In addition, she was the president of the Commission of Social Affairs at Pro-Femmes, an umbrella of 35 associations of women in Rwanda.
By 1999, Chantal decided to move to the United States with her five-year-old son to Dover, New Hampshire. Unlike some refugees headed toward an uncertain future in a new land, she was not afraid as she boarded her flight.“I was determined to work hard to make it for me and my son. I had no doubt I was going to succeed. I told myself, ‘I’m healthy, I can make it. I just have to work hard.’”
Like many new immigrants, Chantal wasn’t able to utilize her vast experience, the three languages she spoke, or her education and decided to go back to school. She applied to and was accepted into a Master of Science in public health program at Boston University, which provided her with a scholarship. Chantal graduated from the program in 2002 and began working with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.
As an adolescent health program coordinator, she has addressed maternal/child health issues among refugees and others. Her work has focused on a variety of issues including access to health care, mental health, and positive youth development. Not confined to health issues, she has also helped with a variety of parenting concerns, such as communication between parents and adolescents, mentoring, and involving youth in the community.
“In Africa, parents feel comfortable with kids playing outside, but here it is seen as neglecting children. Parents don’t know that their children may not be safe.” She understands how quickly immigrant children are Americanized and the difficulties this can present for their parents.“In my country, it is a given that children listen.The community enforces this. But here you have to sit down, talk to kids, and communicate to them why you want them to do things.”
One of Chantal’s core beliefs is that if we help women and children, we can resolve 70 percent of all health issues, so that is where she keeps her focus. In the last few months, she has worked with other African women to establish the Women for Women Coalition (WFWC).The mission of the WFWC is to empower and strengthen the role and participation of African women and girls in all spheres of development, promote selfreliance and self-sufficiency, and to provide a forum where they can be actively involved and where their voices can be heard.
She places a high value on the importance of the full integration of refugees and immigrants in this country.“When you come to this country, you have to learn everything from health care to the school system to the way you build friendships.You have to understand what success means in this country. Economic integration is a big priority. How do we do better? That depends on the whole community. Communities need to know how to integrate new families. It’s a collective investment.”
NOTE: As this profile goes to press, Chantal has accepted a new position with Mass General Community Health Program in Boston. She will be working closely with community groups to promote access to health care. Her talents and passion will be greatly missed in New Hampshire.