Drocella Mugorewera and her husband, Jean Danascene Nkurunziza, had just celebrated their son’s first birthday when the ethnic killings began in their native Rwanda on April 6, 1994. The couple fled to Congo on foot, terrified and confused, with other family members who had been living with them.
“It was horrible,” she recalls. “We lost many relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors. I can tell you that no single family in my country was not affected by the genocide and the killing.”
As executive director of Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga and Knoxville, Mugorewera, 54, now helps refugees from many countries, including Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, adjust to their new lives in East Tennessee.
“When I see the women and single parents who are settling, I remember my time of moving with my son on my back, that time which was stressful, passing nights outside in the air without any assistance,” she says. “So, I can relate to that hardship and I understand the pain and the struggle refugees go through and that motivates me to empower, inspire, assist and align resources to help them.
“Also,” she adds, “it reminds me that we are sometimes tougher than we think we are, because sometimes you ask yourself and say, ‘How did I make it?’ I see that we are strong, stronger than what troubles us.”
Mugorewera is well regarded in Knoxville’s non-profit community, just as she was in her previous high-ranking roles in the Rwandan government, overseeing environmental policy and fighting for inclusion and equity for women.
“In leadership, Drocella demonstrates amazing balance,” says Lynn Goan, community health coordinator of primary care at Cherokee Health Systems, where Mugorewera worked before coming to Bridge in November 2015. Goan also notes her former colleague’s attitude of “respectful tolerance,” which brings about compromise. “I have never seen Drocella demonstrate arrogance or rudeness with others, nor maintain resentment when treated unfairly herself.”
The fifth of nine children in a staunch Catholic household, Mugorewera grew up on a farm in the mountainous city of Byumba in northern Rwanda. Energetic and hard-working, she loved helping people, especially elderly neighbors who had trouble fetching water from distant sources.
“Both of my parents led with kindness,” she says. “But I had some teachers who inspired me in primary school who were very straightforward and wanted us to succeed.”
Fascinated by what she learned working alongside her parents in the fields, Mugorewera developed a love of nature. But the college major she wanted to pursue – agronomy and crop protection – wasn’t offered in Rwanda, nor anywhere else in the region. So, she won a scholarship to the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union and which shared an educational cooperative with her own country. She also learned Russian, bringing the number of languages in her repertoire to five, in addition to the Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, French and English she’d spoken since childhood.
The Rwandan genocide – the last, brutal phase of a four-year civil war – erupted a few years later. She credits God for her survival. “Through my prayers and practicing my faith, that helped me endure terrible hardship,” Mugorewera explains.
“I also knew idioms that we had from my country, for example, that ‘hardships are different from death.’ And those idioms always encouraged me, and I said, ‘We’re alive. Today is a new day.’ So, I was looking forward to what will come after, and I was praising God because I thought if I survived, I have a mission to fulfill on earth.”
It was during this time that she realized her broken English needed improvement, so she attended night classes to beef up her skills.
In 1997, Mugorewera accepted a post as Rwanda’s director of agriculture before becoming permanent secretary and minister of livestock and agriculture, where she coordinated multiple departments in Kigali. In the wake of the civil war, she took part in multinational efforts to restore her nation’s food supply.
“Serving as a civil servant was very good and impactful,” she says. “After genocide, we lost all the seeds and we had to start over and find some seeds from the neighboring countries and see how the other country rebuilds itself. And then the extension service was completely destroyed. People were killed and others wanted to flee the country, so we had to rebuild that system together. I’m glad that I had a chance to participate in that process.”
Mugorewera was appointed to the Rwandan Parliament in 2000, where she presided over the legislative voting process, collaborated with different committees to submit bills to the Supreme Court and co-wrote her country’s new constitution. Her priorities in drafting that document included basic human rights, environmental protection, and a requirement that women hold at least 30 percent of authority positions in local and national government.
After that, Mugorewera served as secretary of Lands, Environment, Forestry, Water and Mines, one of the largest state departments in Rwanda. (She compares it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Among her accomplishments: championing a national tree-planting program and a land-reform system that, for the first time, allowed women to inherit land and also assigned value to property, not just the trees, houses and other structures on it. She also sharpened her communication skills through public outreach and appearances on radio and television.
When the Rwandan president’s cabinet was reshuffled five years later and her job was eliminated, she launched her own business, consulting with non-profit groups and large corporations on issues ranging from environment and agriculture to gender integration.
In 2008, she was forced to flee her homeland once again, when her outspoken ideas were met with contempt by government leaders.
“My life was in danger because I used to challenge the policies and the decisions which were made,” she recounts. “The freedom we are enjoying here – you don’t find it everywhere in the world. I didn’t have any other option. I had to leave. I had been under attack several times.”
Escaping first to Uganda, then Kenya, in the spring of 2009, the U.S. Embassy arranged for her to resettle in Knoxville, which offered housing, job and transportation opportunities, sponsors to help African refugees adapt, and translators who spoke their languages. A case manager from Bridge Refugee Services met Mugorewera at the airport and drove her to a furnished apartment.
“I am a product of Bridge,” she says, noting that the organization connected her to a church, taught her how to navigate the system, helped her find a job, and gave her a donated car. “Bridge was my first parent and welcome in this city.”
Her supervisory job at Goodwill was a far cry from her powerful policy-making career in Rwanda, she admits. “It was challenging, but the most important thing was I needed peace of mind to work so I can meet people [and] I can learn. It was not easy to recover my professional career with my experience and background, but … I learned new stuff in a new culture, and slowly I started to know how to connect, to network, to build relationships to where I am today.”
Although the mountains of East Tennessee reminded Mugorewera of home, a few things caught her off guard. “I was surprised as an environmentalist,” she admits. “I was thinking in America everything should be recycled because it’s a developed country, a powerful country.”
She was also surprised by the proliferation of churches, the frequent comments about her accent – “Everybody has an accent,” she laughs – and, on a more serious note, the number of homeless people in Knoxville. “They call many African countries ‘developing’ countries, and they’re many times on the poverty level, but when you get to the age of being adults you will build your own house, a wooden house, even if there are no water and electricity,” she says.
“With all the forests we have in America, if I was a minister in charge of habitat, maybe we could just build some houses. We have a lot of resources which can be used to help people to go out of poverty.”
One year after Mugorewera landed in Knoxville, her husband joined her. It would be another year before her son and daughter, along with the three nieces she took in after her sister was killed in the genocide, would follow.
Mugorewera was hired in 2011 as multicultural outreach coordinator at Cherokee Health Systems, a federally funded clinic for underserved residents. There, she served as an interpreter, helping Knoxville refugees who might otherwise miss appointments, fail to give needed medicine to their children, or find the right doctor because of the language barrier. She also assisted new physicians from other countries who weren’t proficient in English.
“Her command of multiple foreign languages was such an advantage to our patients and staff,” Goan points out. “Drocella had a very positive overall impact on our patients as a talented communicator and encourager.”
Before long, Mugorewera and her husband moved their large family from a high-rent residence into a new Habitat for Humanity home built by the University of Tennessee football team and sponsored by the Haslam Family Foundation. She also became a U.S. citizen.
In 2015, she was asked to sit on a panel and help interview candidates for the director position at Bridge. When all of the prospects dropped out, Mugorewera applied.
As executive director, she oversees community outreach, fundraising and other programs. Since coming on board, she has attracted more than $100,000 in private donations to supplement Bridge’s federal funding, recruited more staff members, and inspired several clients to follow in her footsteps and become interpreters.
In exchange for helping refugees, she requires three things: They have to learn English. They must find work if they are employable. And, as soon as possible, they must become engaged in the community.
Mugorewera gives the example of one single mom at Bridge who was worried about how she’d make it without a job, transportation or day care for her three children. When the woman later showed up in her newly acquired car, smiling and confident, Mogurewera recalls, ‘I said, ‘I told you you would make it. You’re stronger than you think you are.’ These are the faces I see, and you can see how they start from zero.
“And then when I say, ‘I was in your shoes’ they listen.”
Her background also gives her a unique sense of empathy. “I understand the pain, the struggle a refugee goes through,” she says. “I have a story to tell and credibility behind me. I can relate to their past, their present and their future. And I want to help them and connect them to resources, and not delay where I delayed. I want to make sure they can move faster than I did in terms of integrating into our community and have the resources they need in order to thrive.”
Those who know Mugorewera often mention her optimism. “Drocella is one of the most positive people I have ever known,” Goan says. “Her consistently positive outlook on life and belief in life’s boundless possibilities is quite amazing. Drocella has known and experienced extreme hardship, brutal mistreatment and risk to her life during her past life in Africa. Nonetheless, today she flourishes without bitterness or ill effect.”
To keep up her spirits, Mugorewera surrounds herself with others who are optimistic and often reads about successful leaders who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. “I don’t give up easily,” she adds. “I think that there is always a solution.”
While President Trump’s tough stance on immigration and the recent separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border has impacted everyone in the field, she admits, she prefers to focus on the silver lining.
With fewer immigrants arriving than before, she can provide more assistance to those who have been here a few years and spend more time educating the public. “Refugees are not a burden to our community,” she says. “They are enriching it. They are bringing special cultural and economic values to our nation.”
Another, surprising outcome of the politically-charged immigration debate, she says: Private donations to Bridge have increased. “It shows that our region is welcoming and there are many people who are wanting to live their values and help the newcomers, the new Americans, and to integrate them.
“I hope that America will keep welcoming refugees and assist them to live their dreams and be contributing and productive members of our community.”