Happy endings cannot be taken for granted. Especially for the millions of people who are displaced around the world, having lost their families, been separated from friends and communities, and forced to live away from their homes for years. But when they do happen, they inspire hope and faith in what is possible. This is one such story.
In 2019, actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Gugu Mbatha-Raw met a woman called Françoise Chikunda Sabuni in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. Francoise was originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where she endured violence at the hands of armed militiamen. Years earlier, she had suffered the tragic loss of her husband and four children during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. When they met, Françoise told Gugu that after those unbearable losses she had not known if she could carry on with life. “I became a madwoman,” Françoise told her. “I was crazy and for a few years after losing all of my family, I lost my senses. But I was finally given support and a counsellor and gradually over time began to rebuild my life.”
Françoise assumed her parents had also been killed as she had completely lost touch with them, and no-one seemed to know where they were.
“An all-round force of nature.”
Despite these tragedies, Françoise brought light and inspiration to Nakivale. A whirlwind of energy and positivity, she set up a livelihood project for women who had survived gender-based violence, supported young refugee girls to start a football team, and taught in the small school, even making school uniforms for the kids. She also adopted a teenage girl who had arrived in the settlement without her parents.
Gugu described her as “An all-round force of nature, with a charisma so palpable and seemingly at odds with her heart-breaking story.”
It was no wonder that she was nominated and became the regional winner for the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award in 2020. But despite burying herself in her work and community, she continued to long for her lost family.
“Families belong together. No matter who they are or where they come from” – @GuguMbathaRaw.
The story of Françoise and the parents she thought she had lost forever will fill your heart with joy 💙 @BritishVogue pic.twitter.com/jLN4sQ8C8D
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) September 8, 2022
In 2019, Françoise was helping out at a wedding when she ran into an old school friend who had arrived from overseas for the celebration. Francoise learned that the woman was in touch with her parents who were in fact alive and had resettled to The Netherlands in 2007. Francoise immediately organized a video call with them and their first conversation in over 20 years was an outpouring of relief, grief and love.
“Was this really my Mamma and Pappa? After so, so long, I could not believe it,” recalled Françoise.
The family immediately started to look into whether Françoise could join her parents in The Netherlands through a resettlement scheme managed by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the programme was suspended. It was not until July 2022 that she finally made it to The Netherlands and was reunited with her parents.
Kissing her daughter, Françoise’s mother Margheritte said, “Thank you for coming I am so happy to welcome you again.”
Adjusting to her new life in The Netherlands will take time – Françoise has a lot to learn, including another language. Her mother advised her to “learn the language, respect the law and learn to cook with all these new foods!” Francoise playfully added to this ‘’and learn to ride a bike”.
Whilst Françoise waits for a new home, she is staying at a reception centre where she is sharing a dormitory with five other women, all from Syria. Just like in Nakivale, she has thrown herself into volunteering to support other newly arrived refugees, including by training some of the women to sew so they can earn a living. Her journey towards becoming settled in the Netherlands is not over yet but she is well on her way and already playing a huge part in helping others.
“I am a woman of substance and I will always move forward,” she said.