Jean Luc Dushime and his family fled genocide in Rwanda when he was 14, and then a second horrific war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo nine years later. As refugees, they arrived in Burlington in 2004. Now 29, Dushime has a degree in public relations from Champlain College and a minty-fresh U.S. citizenship. He has embraced life not only in his new country but in Vermont, happily engaging in physical activities from snowboarding to mountain biking to basketball. He works as a mentor at the King Street Center and is a capable, self-taught photographer who enjoys taking pictures of his friends, many of them also “New Americans.”
This stark recitation of facts does not come close to telling Dushime’s full story, one that finds parallels time and time again in the lives of refugees. Dushime, whose demeanor is calm, humble and thoughtful, says he’s grateful to be alive, proud to be an American and lucky to be in Burlington, where he feels “grounded.” Though he’ll give you details if you ask, he’d rather not focus on his past. Instead, Dushime is determined to tell the stories of ones left behind.
“I want to go back and document people’s lives,” he says. “I feel like our story has not been told well. Anyone who goes through something like that needs to be heard; without that,” Dushime adds, “their stories are gone forever.”
Such a project would help him find closure, too, he readily concedes — “I feel like I can’t move on without that,” Dushime says. He’s acutely mindful of the thousands of fellow refugees who may never have the fruits of his good fortune: safety, most of his family around him, an education. And, not least, the ability to “have a dream and the means to pursue it,” as he puts it.
“The war made me really sensitive to people’s pain,” says Dushime. “I reflect every day on my life and what I can do better. No matter what happens to me, I just smile. It couldn’t get any worse.”
With any luck, he’ll find his way back to Africa with camera in hand and have a chance to tell those stories to the world. Meanwhile, Dushime is creating a compelling portfolio of American portraits in Vermont. For this pre-Fourth of July issue, he agreed to share some of his pictures with Seven Days.
Click a photo above to see the names of the photo subjects.