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the last hurdle

Joseph Niyibizi survived the Rwandan genocide and, later, a catastrophic earthquake in Nepal.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

What does it take to vault a personal obstacle? This is part of a collection of stories in which five Canadians reflect on leaping over the barrier that was holding them back. Read the other stories here.

I have had many challenges in my life but I thought I was over them, that the difficulties were behind me.

I was born in Rwanda, one of seven children. I had survived the genocide. My mother had been killed. I also lost my father. My family was dispersed. I was 11 years old. For many years, I was completely lost. There was no one to look after me. It was so terrifying, it sometimes goes beyond imagination. You question the meaning of life. Everything you knew is now gone. Suicide is not difficult to imagine.

But when I was about 14, I realized that I couldn't live like this. I had to be courageous. I would think, "What if my mother comes back? She wouldn't be happy to see me in this situation. I need to move ahead and make her proud."

I decided that no matter what happens, I didn't want to be a hostage of the history of terror and genocide. I managed to get myself educated through programs in Rwanda that helped orphans of the genocide. I had to move by myself from the western part of Rwanda, where I grew up, to Kigali, the capital. I went to high school there, and then to university, where I studied English/French translation. And I came to Canada.

But last spring, I was once again thrown into turmoil.

I was a student at the University of Montreal in a two-year masters program in international relations. I had first come to Toronto in 2009 to do an internship with Plan Canada, assisting them with translation. After that, I worked for a few years in insurance. I became a landed immigrant. Then, I decided to go back to school, so I moved to Montreal. In the spring, I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, doing an internship. My thesis is on the subject of foreign aid. I was in a bookstore, buying a book.

That's when the earthquake struck. At first, I thought it was a bomb that had gone off. But then the building started shaking and shaking. It shook for three minutes but it felt like 100 years. I could see death coming. There was a lot of screaming. Panic everywhere. The book shelves were falling. People were scrambling to hide. To get to the exit down the stairs was impossible. But I did not scream. All I thought was that my family members back in Africa will not know that I died in an earthquake in Nepal.

But the building didn't collapse. And we all escaped.

I had the option to leave Nepal immediately to return to Canada. But I decided to stay, to finish what I had come for. I thought, "If I can complete something during this challenging situation, that will make me feel good." And I also thought, "My life is not more important than the 20 million Nepalese who have to stay here."

But when I returned to Canada in the summer, I was struggling a lot. My friends said it was post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time I heard a loud noise, I would be scared. I would shake. I had flashbacks. And I found it very hard to concentrate and to sleep at night. And I worried that I wouldn't be able to finish my thesis. Some of my friends suggested that I go to a doctor. And I thought I would go if it doesn't get better. But I told myself that I had to finish. I told myself I had to cope. I tried to stand strong.

And I did finish my thesis on foreign aid. I submitted it this fall. I am just waiting to hear the results and hope to graduate in January.

I don't know how I came to know this skill about coping, about having courage and not letting a past experience define how I feel or what I do.

It is the same thing that helped me overcome the terrible situation in Rwanda when I was child. I had a very peaceful childhood. And for many years, I didn't understand what the genocide was or that it was happening. But then it came to our village. When I was on my own, terrified, with no one, I didn't get involved in drugs or anything like that, although that was an option.

I think now that I was lucky, that this is the luckiest thing in my life – that sometimes when you go through challenges, some people develop a natural kind of determination and courage. That's the only way I can explain it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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