Opening Hearts With Burundi refugees

Tanya Martineau

Tanya Martineau

Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Martineau, a producer with the award-winning film production company, Prospect Arts in Colorado Springs, CO. Passionate about advocating for those in need, Tanya collaborates across the globe to bring stories of individuals, brands and international development to light. She came to Prospect after two and half years living overseas and working with various mission organizations that served children and victims of sex trafficking. As a result of this experience, she helped to co-found the nonprofit, Unseen, to help equip groups fighting human trafficking, ending hunger and supporting orphans.

Tanya recently traveled to Bolivia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Philippines, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda to help tell the story of how people are fighting to end poverty, with Food for the Hungry’s help.


Evariste*, a 21-year-old refugee, sits petrified in his tent. He is one of 27,000 Burundians who are seeking protection at Rwanda’s Mahama Refugee Camp from the political violence ravaging their country.  As of July, 2015, an estimated 167,000 Burundians have crossed borders and become refugees, fleeing the hostility and civil unrest that has ensued since Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to seek a disputed third term as president.

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He tells me, “I haven’t left my tent in days…because I know at any time I could be taken and killed.”

In a hushed voice, Evariste whispers his story of how he escaped. Village members were being snatched from their huts in the middle of the night. With no time to gather his belongings or travel documents, Evariste fled his home and was forced to leave half his relatives behind. He receives text messages from his family saying his name is “on the list,” to be found and killed. He lives every day looking over his shoulder, afraid that spies will infiltrate the camp and take his life. Another fear haunts him too — that the rebels could take the lives of his family members at any moment.

RwandaRefugeeCamp (2 of 6)As he shares his story, sweat pours down his face and he shakes his head saying he is without hope. Fear permeates his every word, and my silent tears hit the ground as I sense hopelessness filling the room.

For a moment, I felt hopeless too.

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After 23 days of filming FH programs in the Philippines, Northern Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and now Rwanda, I was worn down. My capacity to give seemed null; I felt completely empty. Tempted to become numb, I found myself thinking, Don’t feel. Pull it together so you can do your job as a filmmaker. Be strong.

Then I remembered my mom’s story, and knew I had to share. The click of my camera turning off broke the silence as I opened my mouth and began to tell her story.

“My mom was born after the Korean War and thrown in a killing field to die. The only thing that kept her alive were the bodies surrounding her. She lay there, a helpless infant.”

Their attention clings on my every word as I continue.

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I explained that my mom couldn’t run to a neighboring country. To the world’s eye, her situation was utterly hopeless, her small life unknown. And yet, God saw her. A missionary found her and saw she was still alive. He placed her in a Christian orphanage in Seoul, and she was adopted a few years later. She now has five children, all of whom have gone to university, are successful, and know Jesus as their savior.

New hope

As I began encouraging them, the cloud of desolation slowly dissolved, and I could see hope coming back in their eyes. I told them their story doesn’t end here. Tears of pain and adversity will turn into strength if allowed. Even if all seems lost, I encouraged them to hold on to the promise that His love never fails.

RwandaRefugeeCamp (3 of 6)I came into the refugee camp thinking I needed to protect my heart. I found that instead of protecting myself, I was robbing Evariste and the others in his group of what they needed – empathy. How could I have offered encouragement if my heart was desensitized?

To feel their pain.

To feel their joy.

To feel.

Having been exposed to poverty and injustice so often in my work, I believe empathy is one of the greatest gifts that can be given. At the time of my visit, 1,332 children were separated from their families in this refugee camp alone. I may not have been able to reach all 27,000 refugees, but I was able to connect with one of them— Evariste. He is not just another scared and hungry face. He has a story and he is loved by God. As Larry Ward, FH founder, shares, “…we can help them one at a time.” One month later, Evariste and I share pictures and stories of our lives. He thanks me for visiting and says he now has hope. And for me, igniting hope in one was worth it.

*A pseudonym to protect Evariste’s identity.

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In addition to praying for the people Tanya describes, and who are pictured here, you can help Food for the Hungry serve refugees from Burundi living in Rwanda with financial donations to help with emergency shelter, food and water.