“My name is Denise and my last name is Bamurange. It's a name from my country, it's a Rwandan name,” Denise introduces herself to me with passion about who she is and where she comes from, and what cultures make up her. Denise was born in Byumba, a refugee camp in Rwanda. At age twelve she came to Alaska, attending middle and high school in Anchorage. She has been in Alaska seven years now, and is currently working while enrolled in UAA, pursuing a business management degree. Her true passion, however, is helping others.

All change and impactful stories start with compassion. To care for other people is a trait that is essential to the world. Denise Bamurange is a true example of this. She not only cares for others, but acts to help them at every chance she gets. Her story; past, present and future, revolves around creating change where it is needed and helping other people.

I first met Denise through the See Stories Workshop “International Understanding in a Time of COVID-19.” In the workshop, through video calls and letters back and forth with rural Ugandan and Alaskan youth, we all found a place of connection within the isolation of quarantine. Denise says the same; “It kept me company during the pandemic… It made me learn that I can have friends.” It also added to her connections to her home country. Uganda is a bordering country to Rwanda, and one of the Ugandan youth was a Rwandan refugee himself. “Talking to people from Africa back home made me happy. It made me happy to do a project with Africans.” She sang a beautiful song written by her classmate for her culminating project that you can listen to here.

Denise still keeps connected with Rwanda and her family and friends in the country. Especially as they need more and more help. Recently Byumba, the camp Denise was born in and where she still has many loved ones, was broken down. All refugees were moved to the nearby camp of Mahama, stuffed into huts not made to accommodate the influx of people. Many possessions were lost and the people there are living on $3.50 to $7.50 USD a month, a substantial deduction from what they used to receive. “They were breaking down houses and kicking people out outside of the refugee camp. They were broken. The houses are not there anymore. They don’t have anywhere to sleep. Some of them are my best friends, my cousins, my uncles, my aunties… they are kicking them out of the refugee camp where they already decorated their houses and had businesses.”

Children at the refugee camp Denise is from

The danger and hardship faced by Rwandan refugees is a pressing issue, one that is not high on public radar and does not have much support. Denise is working to change this. Her most pressing plan for the future is to go back to Rwanda, to help the people there to have the same opportunities she has found. She has been working on this plan for a while, citing the See Stories workshop we both did as a source of inspiration: “Through the See Stories workshop we were talking about what it’s like for friends in Uganda and Rwanda during the pandemic. I heard that testimony and it’s my duty, it’s something I have to do, I feel like I want to help more.”

Denise has this spirit of advocacy for her family and friends in Uganda and Rwanda, and here in Alaska. She left a lasting impact in Anchorage when she chose to join See Stories’ Director Marie Acemah at an Anchorage School Board meeting to advocate for East High School to be renamed the Bettye Davis East High School. As the youngest person to speak for the change, Denise shared with the School Board that as a person of color, it would mean the world to her to have a school she attended named after a leader of color. She showed initiative and the impact that can come from it, as the name change was successful. “It made me feel like I can change something too. I don’t have to doubt myself, my words also matter.”

A gathering of refugees in Rwanda

This initiative to inspire change has led Denise back to Rwanda as well. She and her friends, some still in Rwanda, created a group chat to raise money to provide for families in the camps, buying food and necessities for those suffering. Once she finishes her UAA degree program, Denise plans on starting her own business, and bringing the revenue to those in need in Rwanda. “Alaska has given me the opportunity to get a job and work. Alaska has given me the opportunity to get to where I can help other peopleWhen I create that business I can try to buy them a house or a building and give them a way to live life. Give them my testimony to inspire them. I am saving money to be able to provide some food for people in Rwanda. Even if I help two, three, ten people, to have food for the day.”

Denise has another passion, music and singing. She has been singing since age three, communicating stories with her family and keeping her country, culture, and traditions close through song. Denise sees singing as a form of storytelling “Singing about what is going on, it’s like raising awareness. It’s another way to give a message.” Her final project for the See Stories workshop she attended was a song detailing the connections made across time zones and locational separation, which can be listened to here. She also helped create a song and music video through a See Stories film workshop at Bettye Davis East High School about friendship that you can see here. Music and song is a powerful storytelling tool, but can also be used for communication of loss, and of hard change. “I have thought about making a song about it.” Denise says of her experiences with refugee life. “We made a song about how they broke down the refugee camp that we used to live in. I might make a song about going to help.”

Above all, Denise’s story shows that helping another person, a neighbor or someone far away, can truly change the world. “I want people to know that helping is a really good thing. I have gone through a lot of experiences and I know how it feels to struggle. Helping a neighbor or people in need will change their life.” She sees helping others as a duty, as one day you may need help. “Opportunities come, you know. Today and tomorrow, you might need that kind of help. You're also helping yourself. Just do it as you. ”

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By Emma Tomeo

See Stories focuses on building inclusive communities through film and story, introducing and giving resources to young Alaskans for them to pursue their interests. One such Alaskan youth the organization engaged is Miska Alexia, a See Stories worksop alum since the age of six. Personally, I know Miska Alexia from the “International Understanding in a Time of COVID-19” workshop that we both participated in in our 10th grade year. He has a passion for video and audio editing and is pursuing a future in media.

Miska Alexia at Halloween

Miska, currently a seventeen year old high school senior, is from the village of Nikolai, land of the Dichinanek' Hwt'ana. Nikolai is located in interior Alaska in the Yukon-Koyukuk region and part of the upper Kuskokwim language group. He spent his early years there where his dad grew up, until the 1st grade, when he moved to Anchorage. Nikolai was where Miska first connected with See Stories.

In 2010, Miska was featured in a See Stories workshop’s final project of a film created in the fish camp at Nikolai. The video details life in Nikolai through the eyes of youth and elders, and you can watch it here. Miska shared while laughing that “we have it on a CD. My mom brings it up and tries to bring it back whenever we leave the village after visiting. I make sure she doesn’t because I don’t want to watch my six year old self talk about frying mushrooms. I take it out of the bags and put it back on the bookshelf every time.”

"International Understanding in a Time of COVID" workshop meeting

Since then, Miska has continued making films and podcasts, such as the one he made for the “International Understanding in a Time of COVID-19” workshop in 2020. Using Zoom and letter writing to connect Alaskan and Ugandan youth, the program enlightened all participants on just how alike we are, dealing with some of the same issues while still so far apart. “Despite being on the exact opposite ends of the world”, Miska reflects, “there was still a lot that we had in common with kids in Uganda. COVID was one. It wasn’t as big a deal there (in Uganda) as here (in Alaska). Having to deal with tech difficulties too. Political unrest as well, although they had to deal with it more close hand than us in Alaska.” While keeping in touch with those participants in Uganda was difficult, as many of them do not have access to the internet and mail from Alaska to Uganda takes months to deliver, the final projects from the workshop succeeded in maintaining some connection. An intricate log of not only the contents of the workshop, but the emotions and experiences behind it can be found in each project. View Miska’s podcast here, detailing the connections that jumped out between us in the workshop.

Other media projects that Miska has worked on independently include AI upscaling images (making a low resolution image larger by training AI to guess what an image is) and creating his own Youtube channel, which can be found here. When I inquired about how nerve-wracking it must be to start a Youtube channel, Miska shared that his experience with See Stories’ workshops helped. “See Stories has helped in learning baseline knowledge for some of the software. It has helped with editing videos. Doing audio editing with Adobe has supported workflow too. I have one subscriber and they watch every video! [laughter] For the first video I was definitely a bit nervous.”

The Welcome sign to Nikolai

In the 2020 workshop Miska learned to use Adobe Edition, which connects with Premiere Pro, the software he uses now. When asked what he wants to do in the future, Miska was unsure, the many different options available to him leaving an open canvas for what he will choose to do. “Leaving is coming up quickly.” He says. Being upper Kuskoquim Athabascan, and having experienced unique Alaska Native traditions, Miska definitely sees himself as keeping connected with the state and the village of Nikolai. As for future projects, “I have a lot of fun doing computer science and messing around with software...“I want to learn more about that and put those skills to use, but I have no idea beyond that. I don’t have an end goal. I just enjoy it.”

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My name is Lauren Scantlebury and I am the new Story Coordinator for See Stories. My pronouns are she/her and I live on Dena’ina land. My role is to help share See Stories’ organizational story through grant writing and reporting and to support Alaskans in exploring their own stories. I am thrilled to contribute to this transformative nonprofit and am grateful to be part of such a dynamic team!

See Stories’ mission speaks to me on many levels. I am passionate about creativity – nurturing my own and helping others do the same – and believe that sharing stories can be powerfully healing for individuals and for communities. My role with See Stories is a natural extension of my work as a writer, musician, and community artist. As a singer-songwriter, I have been performing in Anchorage and surrounding areas for a decade and released my debut album Emerging in 2020. I also write essay, memoir, and young adult fiction and will soon be releasing a creativity workbook: Storysharing for Joy. I am excited to bring my love for writing and music into my role with See Stories.

I also appreciate See Stories’ celebration of diversity and inclusion. My own identity involves too many heritages to list and I am proud of them all. I was raised in South Naknek – a small village in Bristol Bay – until the age of ten, when I moved to Anchorage. I attended college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where I took courses in education, psychology, healthcare, social transformation, writing, and music. I am enthusiastic about working for a nonprofit that rests at the intersection of many of these interests. I am looking forward to honing my skills as a grant writer and creator at See Stories and am grateful for the opportunity to work in service to youth and community!

When not working or creating, this fall I can be found: walking in West Anchorage with my husband and our two rescue dachshunds, re-reading all seven Harry Potter novels, and putting puzzles together late into the night.

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