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Two months after I arrived from Rwanda, I made a surprising new friend who changed my life, Nadine Uwimana writes

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When I first arrived, the chapel where I slept wasn't dark. All night, people came in and out of the church on the north side of Edmonton to pray, but I ignored them. I was a 19-year-old sponsored immigrant from Rwanda, with a job at McDonald's and very little money. I didn't speak English very well either.

I was in the church because I couldn't stay with my sponsor any more, her living situation had unexpectedly changed. So I decided to go into a different church every night and pray for help. I went in at 9 p.m. and left every morning at 6.

One Sunday morning, I left the chapel and walked around the neighbourhood, trying to get to know it better. I came across another church, and entered. People welcomed me. One of them was a stylish white woman with blond hair and smooth skin. I couldn't guess her age, but thought she might be in her late 70s.

"Where are you from?" the beautiful woman asked.

"I'm from Rwanda. I've been in Canada for two months."

"Come and sit with me then. My name is Jean Hughes."

Today, I call her Grandma.

I kept going to the same church every Sunday. When Jean came, she looked for me and always gave me a hug. After church, she often took me to Boston Pizza. Over lunch once she asked about my parents and what had happened – why I came to Canada. It's a long story, and she was patient.

I told her that I was only three months old when the genocide unfolded in Rwanda in April, 1994. As I would learn later, both of my parents, two sisters, two uncles, one aunt, 10 cousins and my father's parents were murdered in Kibungo, a township located in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. The mass killing spread though the rest of the country. The genocide took the lives of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans in just 100 days.

As the atrocities were taking place, my 11-year-old sister Delphine and me were spared by the man who killed my family. He took us to his home where his wife hid us. He spared us because my mom was a nice person he knew as a neighbour. When rescuers arrived, the man and his family fled. Another sister, Claire, 9, survived elsewhere by hiding under a bed.

After the killings finally stopped, we were all adopted by Didia, our 75-year-old maternal grandmother. Although she was crippled during the genocide, Didia made a home for us. She treated me like her own daughter and never told me I was an orphan. She wanted me to grow up without sorrow. If I asked about my parents, she told me that they went somewhere and would be back soon.

When I was 10, my sister told me the truth about my parents. I felt betrayed and fooled. I was heartbroken. I held a grudge against those who killed my parents and made my life miserable. At school, other kids talked about their parents, but I had nothing to say. I never knew them. I was shy and isolated in class and I didn't like to talk or play with other students.

Claire was the first to come to Canada in 2007 as a refugee. Didia died of cancer in 2009, when I turned 15, and I lived alone with Delphine. That year, I passed my elementary school exams and was admitted to a boarding secondary school for orphans. At school, I learned that I couldn't change what happened but I could change my future. With a few friends, I started a foundation, Female Solidarity Legacy, to help young girls remain in school by boosting their artistic talents.

In 2013, I joined Claire in Edmonton as a sponsored immigrant, but after two months, the struggle to survive in Canada had almost overwhelmed me.

After listening to my story, Jean asked, "Is paying rent easy for you?" I explained to her how difficult life was at that time.

"I have an extra room," she said. "You can come and live with me for free. I want you to work, save your money and go back to school."

I was a stranger, but Jean was willing to give me a chance. "I trust you, Nadine," she said. "Don't disappoint me."

I needed a true friend, and I had found one. She introduced me to Canadian culture and food. I ate my first lasagna at her house. I got a hug every morning and that made me feel loved.

After a year with Grandma, I offered to pay rent. She accepted, and I stayed a second year until she was advised by her doctor to take it easy. She was 82, after all.

Today, I'm a student in human resources at Concordia University of Edmonton. I rent a room close to the school. I talk to Grandma often on the phone and see her in person as well. Meeting this kind and classy Canadian woman was an eye opener for me. She proved that there are still good people in this world. Grandma tells me: "Nadine, I believe you will become someone incredible."

As a three-month old baby, I was rescued by a killer. In Canada, I was rescued by a saint. Here in Canada, I realized the only way I could escape the bitterness of my past was to forgive the killers who made me an orphan. I want to be a voice for voiceless people and a messenger of peace.

I once felt like a victim, but now I'm a survivor and a victor. Thank you, Grandma, for giving me courage.

Nadine Uwimana lives in Edmonton.