As a teenager, Jean Luc survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994 — an ethnic clash between the Hutus and the Tutsis that killed 800,000 people, including many of his friends and family members. Soon after, he and his mother, carrying his little brother who was only a baby at the time, fled across the treacherous jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on what is known as The Long Walk— 4,000 miles on foot for six months, dodging bullets, escaping quicksand, fighting for food, and moving forward with the clothing on his back hanging on by threads.
He survived, and six years ago came to the United States as a refugee. Earning a degree in public relations at Champlain College in Vermont and now living a relatively comfortable lifestyle in an ocean-side apartment in Santa Monica, California, he carries on with a different set of challenges — fulfilling his mission to tell his story, while facing the same hurdle as millions of young people — unemployment in America. Despite holding a college degree and being fully legally qualified to work in the U.S., he is still struggling to find work. But he remains optimistic. If there’s anyone who can ride the wave, it is Jean Luc.
What’s your life like now?
“For the first time in my life, I live in a place where I can make my own decisions and just go for it. I moved here, got an education, built a strong network of people who care [about] what I care about. It hasn’t been easy but I never thought that I could dream about something and see it through. Telling this story has been big for me. After the war, I told myself I didn’t survive just to live. I survived so I could tell this story. That was my dream.”
What are you working on now?
“Last week I posted a project on Kickstarter.comto tell the stories of survival of The Long Walkthrough video, interviews, photography, and a book, focusing on refugees now living in the U.S. In less than five hours it was funded and I am still getting donations in. I was shocked! I didn’t think it would happen, but for me it’s a sign that I’m on the right path, that this story needs to be told and there are people out there who are waiting to hear it. Now I want to raise more money to return to the Congo for the first time since I fled. It’s not an easy thing. There are a lot of fears I have to overcome, but I feel a responsibility to tell the story. The things I went through, being traumatized — I thought that I deserved it. I used to hate myself and where I came from. But now I know I was just a young, innocent kid. No one deserves to go through what I went through. It feels pretty awesome to be able to tell the story now, and I’m trying to convince other survivors to tell their stories, too. I don’t know where this path is going to take me, but I’m willing to see it through.”
Why is it important for you to tell your story?
“Rwanda will never recover until the story is told. Until the Hutus can cry for the Tutsis and the Tutsis can cry for the Hutus there will not be reconciliation. Even the survivors from opposing sides of the conflict are getting together, having fun, but no one is willing to open the wounds of the past so they can get healed. Through this story I hope to engage young people in a dialogue and share the struggles and fears and make sure this thing doesn’t happen again. And it will happen again if nobody talks about it.”
What advice do you have for the struggling generation of young Americans?
“I’m struggling to find a job. Rather than waiting around … we can follow our passion, and if you don’t have one yet you can help fulfill someone else’s passion. In helping other people realize their dreams we fulfill our own lives. Most of us have some form of training and education that can benefit the community. You can volunteer, and you can keep educating yourself. Just try to be creative. If a job is not working for someone, if there are doors that are closed, there’s a message there we have to understand. We are forced to look into ourselves and find something that society doesn’t have, that society needs. Don’t feel discouraged or useless. We are bright, we are young, we are smart … maybe it’s just that the world is not ready for us yet.”
How do you reconcile your past with your future?
“I don’t think I’ll ever totally move on. But I made a decision that I want to live every day like it’s the last one. My past gives me strength to live harder, faster, and more fully. But I don’t let myself get depressed because of my past. I haven’t moved on, but I’ll find a way to make peace with my past and use it for good. So I’m moving forward with peace and compassion and forgiveness and everything I do in everyday life. I use all these lessons every day.”
Want to learn more about Jean-Luc? Visit his book project and his photography portfolio.