From Rwanda, With Love

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A home OFSAA cross-country running championships provided the perfect stage for a community to celebrate the success of gold medalist Yves Sikubwabo – not only in athletics but also in the radiant refugee’s remarkable journey to adapt to life in Canada so seamlessly. Photo: Marc Desrosiers

By Dan Plouffe, published Nov. 8, 2011 in Ottawa Sportspage

Even when you can’t see him around a corner, you know he’s coming. And it’s not just because you know he’s guaranteed to be at the front. Once the first person catches a glimpse of him, it spreads throughout the crowd – that unmistakable first syllable of his name.
“Y-Y-Y-Y-VES! GO Y-Y-Y-Y-VES!”

And in their voices, you can tell it’s about more than cheering on a guy who’s winning a race. It’s an expression of joy to see a young man thriving not only in running, but in life. It’s an appreciation for his courage.

It’s an understanding that he’s overcome more than any of his race competitors could imagine.

And it’s a love for a bright youthful athlete with the perma-smile who has nothing but love to give back.

“He really believes that there’s good in everybody,” says Nicole Le Saux, Sikubwabo’s Canadian mom. “He treats everybody with respect, and he really encourages everybody. He’s just a really genuine kind of person and I think that’s why people can relate to him.

“He’s just so sweet and he’s very caring.”

Rwandan roots

It seems almost unfathomable that someone could emerge with such an eternally positive spirit from a place where death and despair often ruled the day.

When he was just one year old, Sikubwabo’s parents were among an estimated 800,000 people murdered in the Rwandan genocide. Tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups remained present throughout Sikubwabo’s youth, and his family would sometimes receive threats from the same group that killed his parents.

Sport provided a place for Sikubwabo to find “joy and peace,” which eventually led him to the 2010 world junior track-and-field championships in Moncton, N.B. as Rwanda’s lone representative.

After calling his aunt following his race, Sikubwabo made the bold decision to leave the athletes’ village and jump on a bus to Ottawa, which he knew was the capital, to start a new life in Canada – with nothing but his backpack, clothes and a pair of running shoes.

A new life

Sikubwabo spoke very little English at the time, and not much more French, but all the stars seemed destined to align. He found a shelter to stay in with help from a woman he met downtown who happened to speak his native tongue, and later a family whose daughters had just moved away and had a bedroom to offer him.

“We invited Yves for dinner, and he was just so sweet that between the main course and dessert we decided we would ask him to come and live with us,” recounts Le Saux, who first heard Sikubwabo’s story in a community newspaper article.

Le Saux and husband Jim Farmer’s Old Ottawa South home also happens to not be too far from the city’s top cross-country running school, Glebe Collegiate Institute.

Camaraderie with rivals

No one has ever come close to challenging Sikubwabo in a high school race. But instead of jealously or disdain for the four-time OFSAA champion, the opponents who are left to chase for second place embraced Sikubwabo the same way he embraced them.

Before each race, Sikubwabo wishes as many people good luck as he possibly can, which was certainly the case at OFSAA when he was part of the group of national capital senior boys from different schools who united for an “Ottawa!” cheer at the start line.

“They’re like my brothers. They come and hug me,” says Sikubwabo, who set a new course record every time he ran a cross-country race this season including OFSAA. “They said to me, ‘Yves, we can’t get that high, in the top-five, but you can, so do your best and make us proud at home.’

“Imagine your (competitors) telling you that. So many people said good luck, and that you can do your best, so I’m very happy now that I did it. I’m smiling now.”

There is never an interview where Sikubwabo doesn’t emphasize his appreciation to all the people that have helped him along in Ottawa. At the top of that list is his (Canadian) mom, who gave Sikubwabo the chain he wears around his neck every race for good luck, and to think of her.

Limitless horizons

Although the Grade 12 student plans to stay at least one more year in Ottawa to further improve his English before thinking about attempting SATs, Sikubwabo received his 23rd recruiting package from a university at OFSAA. With a strong support group behind him, the future couldn’t be much brighter for an athlete, and a person, who shines every step of the way.

“I used to think, ‘If I stay in Canada, what would my life be like?’” Sikubwabo recalls, noting that life was constantly in flux with all the new people he encountered. “The people around me make me happy. It’s a wonderful life. I really enjoy every day.”
Read more about Yves Sikubwabo’s journey to Canada in this previous story: Rwandan refugee explodes onto Ottawa running scene

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