Rwandan refugee explodes onto Ottawa running scene

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Yves Sikubwabo (left) and Ottawa Elite Running Team director Mike Woods at Mooney’s Bay. Photo: Dan Plouffe

By Dan Plouffe, orginally published Nov. 3, 2010 in Ottawa This Week

On the shores of the St. Lawrence River, he speeds across the fields at Fort Henry, his stride so smooth and effortless it almost seems like he’s flying.

The other runners in the lead pack manage to stick by his side for the first two loops of the 10-kilometre race, as they keep the first-time cross-country competitor guessing with frequent accelerations and decelerations.

But they can’t keep up forever. The athlete with a smile on his face the whole way coasts in almost 20 seconds faster than the best runner from the hometown Queen’s Golden Gaels.

Informed that he was only 17 years old, observers say it simply couldn’t be true. Who was this kid that came out of nowhere and just blew away some of the top university runners in the province? And where the heck did he come from?

Tough beginnings

Only one year old at the time, Yves Sikubwabo doesn’t remember the chaos that surrounded him shortly after birth. His country was in turmoil as the leading Hutu class planned to eradicate the minority Tutsi, as well as moderate Hutus who wouldn’t assist in the mass killings.

Sikubwabo’s father, a Hutu, and his mother, a Tutsi, were among an estimated 800,000 people who were murdered in the Rwandan genocide.

Although the systemic killings ended after approximately 100 days, the signs of tension between the two ethnic groups remained throughout Sikubwabo’s youth. The worst was when his family would receive threats from the same group that killed his parents.

“It’s not every day, but each month or twice a month, they’d come around,” Sikubwabo says in his second language, French (his native tongue is Kinyarwandan). “It’s something you learn to live through. But I’d still think that one day it could become a much bigger problem again.”

Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding him, Sikubwabo found freedom in sport – first as a soccer player, and then as a runner.

“In sport, I find joy, and peace,” he explains. “It’s how people with many differences collaborate and get along with each other.”

The start to Sikubwabo’s running career wasn’t an immediate success. In fact, he hated running at first and refused advice from a coach who suggested he try athletics since he was too short at the time to play soccer.

“Because I was small, the girls were even faster than me,” recounts Sikubwabo with a smile that is ever-present. “When I ran with the girls, it made me cry because I was so jealous. I said, ‘My God, what am I going to do?’ So I started training every, every day.”

It wasn’t long until Sikubwabo found success in the sport. At age nine, he managed to qualify for the national scholastic championships and placed 13th. The 1,500 m was Sikubwabo’s favourite event, although he never dared enter the finals of the scholastic nationals because the other competitors were considerably older than him. But that changed in 2008 when he was 14.

“My coach asked me, ‘Yves, why do you have to be scared of the others? Why can’t they be scared of you?’” Sikubwabo recalls. “So I ran in the final and the people I thought were really strong – I beat them.”

Sikubwabo won 1,500 m gold at the scholastic national championships each year from 2008 to 2010, and even managed to place second in the senior-level Rwandan nationals as a 16-year-old.

On the basis of those performances, Sikubwabo was chosen to be the only athlete to represent Rwanda at the 2010 world junior track-and-field championships, which would take place near the end of July in Moncton, N.B.

Running in Canada

Sikubwabo arrived in Montreal on his own – no teammates, no coaches, no managers. The first thing that struck him was the sheer size of the airport, compared to the small one in Kigali – Rwanda’s capital and Sikubwabo’s hometown – that sits at the top of a hill.

As he arrived in Moncton, Canada’s nature also impressed him, not to mention the houses, plus the athletes’ village and the stadium at the Université de Moncton.

Sikubwabo enjoyed having the chance to compete against the Kenyans and Ethiopians, although he missed qualifying for the 1,500 m final, finishing 12th in his heat despite a personal-best time of 3:50.15.

But as he spoke to his aunt by phone after the race, Sikubwabo received some very distressing news.

“She told me that the people that killed my parents came to threaten me,” says Sikubwabo, who was planning to return to Rwanda and then compete in the first-ever Youth Olympics in Singapore later in the summer. “In Rwanda, I was starting to get big – everyone knew me. The thing is, that makes it easy for them to find me, and to kill or hurt me.”

Sikubwabo’s aunt told him it would be OK if he stayed in Canada to ensure his safety. So it was then that Sikubwabo decided he wouldn’t get on the plane to head back home, but would instead start a new life in Canada – with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a backpack that carried his running shoes and socks.

In the athletes’ village, Sikubwabo asked athletes from Burundi who spoke his language if they knew how to take the bus to Ottawa. He had learned in school that Ottawa was Canada’s capital, and he believed it was also the biggest city since Kigali is the largest in Rwanda.

By the time Sikubwabo arrived in Ottawa and found a cheap place to stay on Nicholas Street, the little money he brought with him was gone. He didn’t eat the first night, he went straight to sleep.

“My first day in Ottawa, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” Sikubwabo says. “‘I don’t speak English. I don’t know this city. My God, what have I done?’”

The next morning at his hotel, a woman named Marie asked him where he was from, and eventually determined they both spoke the same language and were from Rwanda.

For the next two weeks, Sikubwabo stayed with Marie. She helped him find the immigration office so he could declare refugee status, and a youth shelter where he could stay. He now calls her mom.

An elite team

Eventually, word started to spread in the Ottawa running community that an athlete from Rwanda had come to the nation’s capital after the world junior championships. Originally, Ottawa Elite Running Team director Mike Woods dismissed the rumours as embellished or untrue, but he showed up at a half-marathon run along the Rideau Canal nonetheless to see Sikubwabo with his own eyes.

“It was later in the evening, it was rainy – just terrible conditions,” Woods recalls, describing the moment he first saw his future teammate as similar to when Steve Prefontaine appears in the movie Without Limits. “Through this clearing Yves came, and he was just flying. His stride looked so beautiful. He ran by us and said, ‘I’m just jogging, I’m just jogging.’

“He ran one hour and 12 minutes for a half-marathon, in his first time running over 11 km (the distance from Sikubwabo’s home to his school in Kigali). He made it look easy. I knew right then and there that this kid was going to be very, very good.”

Inviting Sikubwabo to join the Ottawa Elite Running Team was a no-brainer for the group, and he’s been training with them ever since.

“He’s such a good person. People really gravitate towards him,” Woods notes. “He makes you realize why we all got into running in the first place. You can tell when he’s running that he loves it. He’s always smiling.”

OERT coach Ian Clark says it’s going to be fun to watch Sikubwabo develop in the next few years since he doesn’t believe his new athlete had a whole lot of “sensible” training behind him.

In Rwanda, there was no regard for an athlete’s age and on any given day depending on where there were holes, Sikubwabo could be put into a group focused on the 10 km, the half-marathon, or another distance.

“He’s obviously a talented, great runner, and it’s great to inherit an athlete like that,” Clark says. “But as a coach, I’m always cognizant of their other areas of development too. He’s got a lot of challenges ahead of him in other areas of his life.

“He needs to be making progress in adjusting to a new country, we need to make sure he’s making progress at school, just adjusting to Canada and the winter. It’s tempting to think, because it’s so sexy on the running side that there isn’t anything else that we should be concerned about, but I think there is.”

Settling in Canada

The challenge of finding a school for Sikubwabo proved to be a difficult one. OERT team member Daniele Riendeau took a lead role in getting him into school since she’s bilingual and is able to communicate best with Sikubwabo.

Originally, they tried a French public school so Sikubwabo could study in a more familiar language, but they ran into trouble as the school board bounced him between adult high school and a regular program.

Eventually, Riendeau turned her attention to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and its English as a Second Language program. The group finally got confirmation on Oct. 14 that Sikubwabo could start studying at Glebe High School the next Monday.

The day before his first in class was when Sikubwabo topped the field at the Queen’s Invitational with an eye-popping time of 29:20 (although the course was about 700 m short of a full 10 km.) There was already a major buzz among the cross-country team when he showed up for his first practice Monday morning.

“The kids at Glebe just love him and have been really supportive,” Woods notes. “People are already offering Christmas dinners, jackets, boots. The community has really rallied around him.”

Not everyone was quite as welcoming, however. There’s been quite the stir in the high school cross-country ranks about whether Sikubwabo should be eligible to race. There is a requirement that athletes attend 13 high school team practices prior to the city championships (and 16 prior to the OFSAA provincials), and with Sikubwabo’s late start to the school year, it’s going to take some creativity on the part of Glebe coach Kirk Dillabaugh to reach the 13 mark before the Thursday, Oct. 28 race.

There are also other athletes that worked very hard to put themselves in position to be a city champion, and some competing senior boys’ teams could view Sikubwabo’s arrival a little bit like Glebe bringing in a ringer at the last moment.

“It’s kind of distressing,” Dillabaugh comments. “My school wasn’t his first choice – he tried to get into others. It wouldn’t have mattered where he went to school, I would have been rooting for him.

“It’s a great story. I think a lot of it comes down to ignorance. People don’t know his story and all that he’s had to go through to be here. Anyone that knows him would be pulling for him.”

The people cheering him on during his first high school cross-country race on Oct. 20 lifted Sikubwabo to a west conference victory of 1:29 as he smashed the Mooney’s Bay 7 km course record in 22:37.

“The spectators here love the sport – young and old that come to clap and cheer on the runners,” Sikubwabo says. “There were people I didn’t know who were yelling, ‘Yves, you can do it!’ I’ll never forget that race. It was a great competition for me.”

Sikubwabo is quick to acknowledge the help he’s received from everyone since he’s moved to Ottawa.

“All the people that are supporting me, like our team, my coaches ­– they’re wonderful people,” he adds. “I want to tell them thank you.”

Sikubwabo will likely stay at Glebe for this school year as he begins Grade 11 as well as next year. He would like to gain Canadian citizenship, although that’s a long process with “a lot of hoops to jump through,” notes Woods, who is on the lookout for any help that can be provided to Sikubwabo with regards to his immigration.

But there’s no doubt in Sikubwabo’s mind where he’d like to end up long-term, even though he originally stayed in Canada purely for safety reasons without any plans to continue competing.

“The fact that I can run here and go to school is a bonus,” the emerging star says. “My friend, Mike (Woods), he always asks me what I want to do in the future. I say, ‘Mike, I’d love to go to the Olympic Games.’ It’s my dream. I need to go. I’m going to train as hard as I can to go to the Olympic Games.”

Despite those big dreams and the life he’s enjoying in his new home, Sikubwabo thinks frequently about his aunt and the dangers she faces in a different reality.

“Here in Canada, it’s a country that offers me security, there are good people here, and they like other people,” Sikubwabo states. “I’m better off here, for sure, and I’d like to stay here the rest of my life.

“But it hurts to think I’d never get to visit my family back home. But maybe they could come visit me here, or I could bring them to live here with me. Every day, I think of my family.”

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