Interview: Beatrice Smith, author, The Search for Home

07 April 2017

‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully make sense of the genocide’

I was born in a little town, Nya­magabe, in Gikongoro, Rwanda, and this is where I was brought up until the age of ten, in 1994. I have two sisters, Esperance and Amina, and three brothers, Ebenezer, Michael, and Paul. We’re a very close family and always have been, thanks mostly to my mum and dad, Dative and Simon. We always ate together at the table for every meal, breakfast included, and still do whenever we get a chance.

 

I’m married to a wonderful man, Stuart, and we have two children, Isabella, who’s seven, and Charlie, who’s three. From chauffeur to chef, I enjoy being a mum immensely. I’m also on a part-time, one-year residency with my church, Ivy Manchester, where I’m learning about all aspects of leadership and church-planting. Before that, I was an employment-relations manager with various agencies, helping people who have been in long-term un­­employment to combat barriers to sustained employment.

 

I wrote The Search for Home mostly for my children, my daughter Isa­bella especially. At the time, I was recovering from a traumatic car accident, which made me reflective. I’d always said that I would one day write this story for my children, so that they will always know where mummy came from. But what initially started out as a simple story for my children soon became so much more, once I actually started writing.

 

The book is about my journey as a child refugee through various coun­tries in search of safety and a place to call home, following the tragic and traumatic genocide that seized Rwanda in 1994. I describe how we lost friends and family, came face to face with gangs of murderers who threatened us, and our miraculous rescue and escape from their hands.

 

I also talk about life as a child refugee, and the difficulties of camp life, the hopes and disappointments that we encountered, as well as the kindness of strangers.

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Writing this story was much harder than I’d ever expected, but I found it a deeply healing journey.

 

Although I’d heard of the healing of the memories, I’d never experienced it before it happened to me. When I did, it was in my living room, by myself. It was a powerful experience that helped me immensely in recovering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from our car accident, and even from some of the things I’d repressed in the genocide. Storytelling is used as a means of treating PTSD, and I’ve found real healing in sharing mine.

 

My first experience of God was not long before we fled our home in Rwanda. I was nine years old. Be­­cause my dad was a church minister, I always assumed I had an automatic pass into heaven. But a visiting preacher looked at me and said: “Some of you think you can just hold on to your parents’ coats. No, you need to know God for yourself.” I realised that God knew my thoughts, but wasn’t offended by them, and wanted me to know for myself what he was like. I got bap­tised not long after, and my rela­tionship with God deepened in that year.

 

Looking back now, I’m incredibly grateful that God introduced him­self to me at the time he did. My faith grew immensely after that first encounter, and carried me through­out the years. When we were going through several countries, I had assurance for myself that God was real, was with us, and was good. I had times of real despair when my family and I reached Swaziland, where I began to question whether God was real; but what I find again and again is a God who can handle my doubts and my questioning.

 

I don’t know why millions of refu­gees all across the world are experiencing such extreme hard­ship, not only from their own coun­tries but also from policies and governments of other nations and social reactions. But then I see the extreme efforts of organisations and churches that feel compelled to offer hope to people like me, of indi­viduals filling cars with aid to go and help in the camps in Calais, of people starting petitions to compel governments to be more compas­sionate towards those in desperate need, of churches like mine at Ivy, working tirelessly to relocate at least one refugee family to a safe place in the UK.

 

There’s so much that breaks my heart daily, and I’m brought to my knees to pray for God to help them as he helped us. But I must look at what he’s doing, and ask myself and others how we can better partner with him to help at least one person in crisis at home or abroad. Each of us can make a small but significant difference.

 

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully make sense of the genocide. Ul­­timately it points to the brokenness of our world, and that’s all around us. But that was never God’s design for us. I have to have hope beyond the brokenness that I witnessed.

 

Yes, it’s possible to drift away from God — even after experiencing miracles. Life can sometimes get in the way, and human beings have a short memory of God’s goodness. Just look at the Israelites.

 

Like anyone else, I must be careful not to forget. So, in our house, we practise this daily and thank God every day for the little and the big things. One reason for writing my story is that I never want us to ever forget the miracles.

 

Living in Britain is great. It is home in so many ways, and we are so happy here. But there’s also a long­ing for the home we lost, and that may never go away. Displacement is the cost of war.

 

We definitely need to be more com­passionate to refugees. The UN has identified what it calls a “culture of disbelief” at the heart of our Home Office, making it extremely difficult for asylum-seekers to have their care fairly reviewed. We came in 1998, and it’s apparent how far we’ve moved from a culture of com­passion towards that of sus­picion and fear.

 

My family and I are benefactors of compassionate politics, and we must urge our government to re­­consider its position when it comes to helping refugees and asylum-seekers. It is easy to feel hopeless, but I believe strongly in the power of prayer.

 

I find it hard to sit still in the face of injustice. What moved me recently was when MPs voted against the Dubs amendment for unaccom­panied child refugees. I think Jesus would have been moved by that, too.

 

I’m happiest when I am with people. I’m an extrovert, so naturally re­­charge by being around others; but I’m happiest when I’m with family and friends, just generally doing life together.

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My mum’s been my greatest in­­fluence. She taught me kindness, patience, joy in adversity, and lots of other things. You’ll find me through­­out the day picking up the phone and calling her. She’s become my best friend, and I love her deeply.

 

My favourite verse is Jeremiah 29.11. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you, not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future.” Whenever I feel hopeless, I remem­ber that verse, and it fills me up again.

 

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Maya Angelou or Oprah. I haven’t yet found an autobiography that I’ve enjoyed more that Maya Angelou’s. And Oprah simply be­­cause she has such a magnetic wis­dom, and she’d be so much fun to hang out with.

 

Beatrice Smith was talking to Ter­ence Handley MacMath. The Search for Home is published by Instant Apostle at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10).

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