Interview with an Alum: Denise Bamurange
“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.”
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.”
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. ”