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Visa Lottery Winner From Rwanda Reaches ‘Top of the Mountain’

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After the killings of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, Bernadette Mutirende wanted to focus on building a better life with her two children, Chris and Nadine. Instead, she found herself fighting to clear her ex-husband’s name: He was jailed on genocide accusations. “I did whatever I could to prove his innocence,” she says, “which led to persecutions and threats to me and eventually forced me to flee the country.”

In 2001 she went to France where she received political asylum. “The first reason that brought me to France was to find a safe place for me to take care of the kids, where they were not constantly reminded that their dad was called a genocide perpetrator. The second reason was for me to be free to continue the battle of freeing their dad, which I did safely through Lawyers Without Borders.”

In 2002 a court found her ex-husband not guilty, freeing him after eight years in prison. By then, Bernadette had built a new life in Lyon, in eastern France. She met Pierre Colin, an information technology engineer and database developer from Belgium. He had an IT firm in Salon-de-Provence in southern France, where he lived, but he would travel to clients in Lyon.

“We met in June 2005 through a common friend who was Pierre’s client,” Bernadette says. A year later, Pierre asked her to join his company. They moved to Avignon, north of Salon-de-Provence, and in November 2008 they married. But Bernadette still had one wish. 

“Before even leaving Rwanda, I was wishing to have the opportunity at a certain time in my life to work and live in the U.S.,” she says. “From 1997 to 2001, I worked for Africare in Rwanda. It was an American nongovernmental organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., and I was feeling closer to the U.S. That made me happy.”

After Bernadette met Pierre, she told him of her wish. “To my surprise, Pierre told me that since he was a teenager, it was his dream too. I thought I was just dreaming, because I could not imagine a Belgian dreaming to come to America … what for?”

She told him about the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, often called the green card lottery. Each year, under a mandate by Congress, the Department of State selects applicants to come to the United States as permanent residents from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S. For fiscal year 2016, 50,000 diversity visas will be available. The entry registration period was Oct. 1-Nov. 3, 2014.

There is no cost to register for the annual lottery.

The couple filled out the online entry forms in 2007 for the 2009 lottery. Bernadette says: “The first time we did it, I won. So we decided to dump everything we had and to come to live our dream!”

For the last four years, she has worked for the Office of Legal Affairs at the United Nations headquarters in New York. She is currently on detachment to the U.N. Ebola Response Liaison Office.

Pierre works in Florida as the IT director of a dental implant company, but he spends one week each month at the family’s home in New Jersey. He makes up the time by working on weekends, Bernadette says. “This has been tough for us because of the distance, but it was the price for us to be able to pay tuitions for the kids; Chris just finished his bachelor’s degree in IT last December. Now Pierre is looking for a job in the New Jersey/New York area so we can live together.”

From left: Pierre Colin, Bernadette Mutirende and her children, Nadine and Christian.

His February trip home included a milestone for the family. On Feb. 25, Pierre, Bernadette and 25-year-old Nadine all became U.S. citizens. They took the Oath of Allegiance with 27 other citizenship candidates from 20 countries at the Newark Field Office in New Jersey. Looking back at her journey, Bernadette says: “I am now a citizen of the world superpower. Isn’t it a miracle? I really feel blessed. I came from a deep pit, and now I am on the top of the mountain.”

“When I left (Rwanda) in 2001, I wanted to ensure that my kids would grow up in a country without ethnic division and hatred, with freedom of speech and liberty to think,” she says. “I do not have material wealth, so by coming to this land of opportunities, I wanted my kids to have the same opportunities to participate in building this country and grant a better tomorrow to their own kids.”

She says she looks forward to 22-year-old Chris obtaining his American citizenship as well.

She is also looking forward to a family trip this August to Rwanda. It will be Bernadette’s first trip with her kids to their native country since 2001. “This trip is like a pilgrimage for us. Nadine and Chris are asking me questions about what happened during the 1994 genocide. It’s not easy to go back to face the past, but it’s a must-do.”