RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Clemantine Wamariya knows more about death than a young woman should. She's an American now, but hovering always in her memory is one of the horrors of the 20th century, the genocide in Rwanda, where she was born. President Obama has now named her to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, at 23 the youngest person ever appointed and the first from Africa. Clemantine Wamariya was still a child when she and her sister ran for their lives. She didn't see her parents until 12 years later, when she won an essay contest sponsored by Oprah Winfrey. Today, she's a student at Yale and her early memories of Rwanda are not without joy.
CLEMANTINE WAMARIYA: We had this huge mango tree in my backyard. Every afternoon we'll have literally just tons of kids climb that tree and play and make as much noise as we want. And that tree became sort of a world where we could travel. You know, it was a train. It was a plane. It was a car. My memory of childhood is so rich, and I think that's why I was able to just sort of live and overcome things that had happened, 'cause I remember how beautiful it was growing up in Rwanda.
MONTAGNE: Everything changed in the spring of 1994 when, over the course of just three months, one ethnic group, the Hutus, killed hundreds of thousands of people from mostly another ethnic group, the Tutsis. You were just six and alone in the house with your sister when the killers came for you.
WAMARIYA: Well, I just remember being in a room and being so scared because I did not know who or what was going to happen. I never knew what death meant. To me, whatever was happening outside, I called it noise. I didn't know it was genocide until I started studying about it. But no one is telling you what's going on because everyone is busy trying to find a way to hide and where to pray and how to pray and how to kneel and how to, you know, raise their hand up high so that they can pray more.
MONTAGNE: Do you remember running with your 16-year-old sister when you were six out of the house into a field? I gather you walked and walked and walked for days to get to the first of many places that you spent as a refugee for the next six years in Africa.
WAMARIYA: Yeah. I mean, how can anyone forget waking up and you know that someone's going to come and get you. You do not know where they're going to come - if they're going to come from the front door, the back door, the window. You're in a panic, absolutely panic, and jump out and go and run and crawl so much that, you know, your knees are completely bleeding but you can't stand up. And all you could think about is your stomach. You know, from morning you think of what you're going to eat to a night where what food, what water can you drink?
MONTAGNE: Your life changed so dramatically when you came to the United States, as a sixth grader.
WAMARIYA: Well, a sixth grader who hadn't been in school until sixth grade.
MONTAGNE: Well, you did pretty well because you ended up at Yale. So how do you do well and still hold this other part of your life in your mind? I mean, how is it even possible?
WAMARIYA: Well, I have had so many incredible people in my life. You know, my first role model being my mother and then my sister, nothing can gander(ph) away. And so when I'm place in a challenge to finish the sixth grade, I will ask for any help I could get so I could get through. But then, you know, to realize that being in school is not only, like, oh, I have received an education, but it's more to learn about others. You know, why we do things to each other as the way we do, such as killing a whole race. What does that really mean? You know, slowly, yes, that it - sort of learning about it, especially in eighth grade, that's that question. And since then I've been hunting it down, trying to understand psychologically why do humans do such terrible things to each other.
MONTAGNE: Do you see your work in the future, your appointment to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, helping you find an answer?
WAMARIYA: I think just sitting with incredible leaders who are making decision of others – they might never have an input of what it means to grow up in a refugee camp as a little girl. You have no mother, you have no father. Am I going to give them an input what it means to live in seven countries where people look at you and they think, oh, you are nobody.
MONTAGNE: Is there a particular person who didn't survive that you think about or that you want especially to be remembered?
WAMARIYA: There are too many. And it's not only people that I lost in the genocide. I am most talking about people that I lost along the way, you know, living in refugee camp and dying with diseases that can strike you in a second. Those people had become my family. What I want to remember is the joy that filled my house every Sunday when we had visitors and the joy that I had playing in the mango tree.
MONTAGNE: Clemantine Wamariya, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
WAMARIYA: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Clemantine Wamariya is the newest and youngest person to join the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.