Running has always been a lifeline for Yves Sikubwabo.
It helped him survive in his native Rwanda, where he was orphaned before he was 2 after his parents were killed in the 1994 genocide.
It brought him to Canada as a 17-year-old to compete at the world junior track and field championship in Moncton, N.B., where, alone and with less than $200 in his pocket, he decided it was too dangerous for him to return home.
With the support of his new “family” in Ottawa, who took a chance by inviting a homeless teen to move in after just one meeting, Sikubwabo now finds himself at the University of Guelph, where he is an emerging star on the school’s cross-country team.
“Everything I’ve been able to do in my life, it has happened because of running,” the 20-year-old acknowledged in a recent interview.
Sikubwabo will lead a powerful Gryphons men’s and women’s team into the CIS cross-country championships that will be contested Saturday in London, Ont.
The women’s team will be seeking their ninth consecutive national crown, while the men will be taking aim at eight in a row.
Sikubwabo, who finished sixth at last year’s nationals, during a season where he was crowned the CIS track and field rookie of the year, is coming off a disappointing 18th-place finish at the Ontario University Athletics championships two weeks ago in Hamilton.
He had a legitimate excuse: losing his right shoe at the two-kilometre mark of the 10-km event, when it became stuck in muck during a race that was contested through a cold, driving rain.
At the 6-km mark, Sikubwabo’s left shoe met a similar fate, but rather than quit, he finished the race barefoot.
“That was like skating on ice, trying to run on two bare feet,” Sikubwabo said flashing a blinding smile.
Sikubwabo grew up in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, an only child of a Hutu mother and a Tutsi father who was rarely around.
Both his parents were killed by Hutu extremists during the height of the 1994 genocide, in which more than 500,000 people were slaughtered.
Sikubwabo was taken in by an aunt and raised in poverty in a humble home that did not have indoor plumbing.
To make ends meet, the aunt sold bananas in the countryside, and when Sikubwabo turned 6 he was required to do the same, only with one caveat: She would send him out to work dressed like a girl because little girls would earn more money than little boys.
“I never thought I’d finish school, to be honest,” Sikubwabo said. “I thought that since selling bananas was my aunt’s career that was going to be my future as well.”
Fortunately for Sikubwabo, he discovered running. First, at 9, when he did it ostensibly as a means of keeping fit for soccer. Necessity was the other reason.
When he entered high school at 16, the closest school was 11 km away. As there was not enough money for bus fare, Sikubwabo ran to and from school each day in order to continue his education.
The hard work paid off as Sikubwabo would soon become the national high-school champion in the 1,500 m and was chosen as the only athlete to represent his country at the world junior meet in Moncton in July, 2010.
Just 17, and never having been abroad before, Sikubwabo was handed $200 in spending money by the Rwandan government and placed on a plane bound for Canada.
Sikubwabo said the only things he knew about the country was that it was home to the Great Lakes and Ottawa was the capital.
Speaking a bit of French but no English, Sikubwabo said he considered it a major victory just figuring out how to find the bus from the Moncton airport that took him into the athletes’ village.
Once there, the jet-lagged runner said he fell into a deep sleep in his room and missed his connection the next day that would have taken him to the stadium to participate in the opening ceremony.
When the event organizers realized the only participant from Rwanda was nowhere to be found for the athletes’ march into the stadium, they found a stand-in.
“I happened to see a TV that was showing the ceremony and noticed someone was holding my flag – this white guy,” Sikubwabo said with great amusement. “I said, ‘That’s supposed to be me.’”
Sikubwabo said he made certain he did not miss his 1,500-m event, in which he finished 12th.
But he had other pressing matters on his mind. After arriving in Moncton, he had been in contact with his aunt, who was urging him to stay in Canada to start a new life over concerns he would be killed if he returned home.
It was explained to Sikubwabo the people believed responsible for the deaths of his parents were no longer in jail and there was talk they might want to finish the job they had started.
After the track meet concluded, Sikubwabo found the bus terminal in Moncton and purchased a one-way ticket to Ottawa. He reasoned the capital would be the best place to claim refugee status.
Upon arriving in the city, his first concern was to find an inexpensive place to stay for the night. Naturally, the first place Sikubwabo wandered into was the ritzy Fairmont Chateau Laurier, where even the cheapest room was going to set him back around $300 per night.
Realizing he could not afford that, Sikubwabo was eventually directed to a nearby hostel.
The next day, hungry and once again out on the street, Sikubwabo had the good fortune to overhear a group of people speaking Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.
Contact was made and one of the women, a native of Rwanda now living in Ottawa, invited Sikubwabo into her home for a couple of days after learning of his plight. She also took Sikubwabo to a government office where he could claim refugee status and then to a homeless shelter he would call home for the next month or so.
Through it all, Sikubwabo kept on training and entered a half marathon in Ottawa, the first time he had ever run such a long distance. He won easily and the story about a homeless 17-year-old Rwandan made it into a local newspaper, where it was read by Nicole Le Saux, an Ottawa doctor who specializes in infectious diseases.
Having just come back from Haiti as a medical volunteer in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck in January, 2010, Le Saux said the “bells went off” when she read Sikubwabo’s story.
Le Saux and her husband, James Farmer, an ophthalmologist, live in a comfortable home in the Old Ottawa South district with plenty of room after raising three daughters, who had since moved out.
Le Saux said initially the idea was to maybe help provide the young Rwandan with a meal once a week or perhaps help purchase his school supplies. All that changed after Sikubwabo was invited over for Sunday dinner.
“He came over and he was such a quiet, unassuming guy – so kind and respectful,” Le Saux said. “I just thought, we can’t send him back to the shelter. I cornered my husband in the kitchen and I said, ‘I think he should come and live here.’ My husband sort of looked at me like, ‘You didn’t tell me this before.’ It just popped into my head.
“So we went back into the dining room and we asked him and in an instant he said, ‘Could I?’”
The next day, Sikubwabo moved in and it did not take him long before he was referring to his new benefactors as “mom and dad.”
“When I got into the house it was like a dream,” Sikubwabo said. “A big bedroom and bed. I just sat there crying, I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Sikubwabo enrolled at a local high school. He made quick advances in English and the awards kept piling up in athletics as he began to dominate the high-school cross-country agenda.
Heavily recruited by Canadian universities, Sikubwabo quickly chose Guelph to continue his academic studies and further his running aspirations.
“It’s takes a lot of guts to go through what Yves has, heading to another country where you don’t know a soul, don’t really know the language, and just wind up staying,” said Dave Scott-Thomas, his coach at Guelph.
Sikubwabo’s next challenge is to secure his Canadian citizenship, which could clear the way to his participating for Canada at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto – as a long-distance runner, of course.
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