Refugee stories are often about fear: people fleeing their homes because they fear for their safety. But they can also be stories of joy.
One Anchorage woman and her family took a path from war to love, and finally, to Alaska.
Marie Claire Mukambuguje fled Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 only to find herself caught up in the war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
For months, she walked more than 300 miles through the dense forest with a group of other civilians and some soldiers, who were trying to escape areas of fighting.
During that time, she was forced to marry a soldier and stayed with him for four turbulent, violent years. Together they had a son. When aid agencies finally helped her escape the forest and relocate to Congo-Brazzaville, she wasn’t free of her violent husband.
“After one months, two months he can come (again),” Mukambuguje recalled while sitting in her living room, surrounded by family. “Then he go in the forest and then he back again.”
Mukambuguje worried he would try to kill her.
But this isn’t that story. This is the story of how she met her current husband, Faustin Murengezi.
Mukambuguje was working at a hospital in Congo-Brazzaville and living alone with her son.
One of her coworkers knew she was single, so he brought his friend, Murengezi, to visit her.
He proposed that day, but the way Marie Claire saw it, she didn’t need a husband.
“So now I can pay my rent. I can buy my clothes … What can you do for me?” Mukambuguje said, her children and husband laughing in response.
Mukambuguje’s first marriage was miserable.
She feared going home from work. Why should she try it again?
“I live four year with someone … I never feel love.”
But Murengezi came back to see her at the hospital, and this time, he was alone.
He told her all about his past life – how he taught in Rwanda and was a person of faith. He was married before, too, but when fleeing the fighting in the forest, his was separated from his first wife. He waited for her for six years before accepting that she had probably died.
Mukambuguje said her friends told her to give him a chance.
“Start again your life. Don’t stay like this. You are still young. You can start your life and then life can be good for you,” she said. “I was always refuse.”
She decided to pray about it.
Then, one night, she dreamt that someone was coming to attack her and her son in their apartment, just like her former husband had done.
“I scared – maybe someone is coming again,” Mukambuguje recalled. “I wake up – no person. Three times.”
The next time she had the dream, she heard Murengezi’s voice. “He says, ‘This is my wife. If I saw you again here, we fight.’”
Mukambuguje said she couldn’t go back to sleep and went in the morning to see her pastor. The pastor said maybe it was a sign from God. She never dreamed of being attacked again.
Soon after the dream, they were married.
Mukambuguje said being with Murengezi is very different than her first marriage – he cares for her.
“He’s funny,” Mukambuguje said with affection. “I see big difference.”
Together they had three more children, but they were not safe in Congo-Brazzaville.
Her first husband tried to kidnap her oldest son.
The family applied to be resettled in a new country, and about a year ago, they arrived in Anchorage.
Mukambuguje sat with her husband on the couch, remembering how people described Alaska to her.
“It’s very, very cold. Yeah,” Mukambuguje said, her husband nodding along side her. “Cold, no cold. For me, I need to be in a safe place.”
Now Mukambuguje is safe, working full time as a housekeeper at the Marriott and training new employees, while her husband, who used to teach and work in public health, attends classes and looks for another job.
They leaned together on the couch, posing a lot like they are in the wedding photo that hangs on the wall right above them, one of the few belongings they carried to help make Anchorage their home.