Oct 25, 2013
Yves Sikubwabo had never seen the world beyond the hills of Rwanda. He left his home for the first time in July 2010 to compete in the World Junior Championships for track and field in Moncton, New Brunswick.
“All I knew about Canada were the Great Lakes and a capital city called Ottawa,” recalled the young Rwandan.
At the age of seventeen, Yves entered Kigali Airport with his aunt Floriane Nyirambabazi. He assured his aunt who raised him as a son that he would be okay and would return to Rwanda after the competition. Without a parent, coach or teammate, he boarded the plane and began his journey to Canada.
Speaking Kinyarwanda his whole life, when Yves arrived in New Brunswick he had no knowledge of English, but knew enough French from elementary school to navigate through Moncton.
He competed in the 1500m at the World Junior Championship, and though he set a personal best time, he was unable to qualify for the finals running against older and more experienced competition.
After the race, Yves called his aunt who gave him troubling news; many perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide including his parent’s killers had been released from prison threatening to finish what they started. Fearing for his safety and acknowledging that Canada offered the opportunity of a better life, she told him to stay.
The young runner spoke to his aunt over the phone three times, pleading with her to change her mind, but she persisted. He called his coach Jean Dmascene as well, who reiterated his aunt’s advice. Finally, Yves accepted their wishes and decided to stay in Canada, where he did not know a single person or fluently speak either language.
“I took a bus to Ottawa because it was the only city I knew. I wanted to be in Ottawa because government offices and schools would be there,” recalled the runner.
When he arrived in the capital, he was astounded by the urban landscape. The young Rwandan had never seen structures like the bridges that straddled the Ottawa River, or the massive 19th century buildings adorning Parliament Hill.
With only $40 to his name, he walked around downtown going from hotel to hotel, only to learn that the average room ranged from $100 to $200 a night.
A hotel concierge directed him to a hostel that was formerly a jail. After staying there for a few days, with no money left and no idea what to do next, Yves overheard something unusual; someone speaking Kinyarwanda.
A group of travellers from Burundi were staying in the hostel visiting a Rwandan friend. The fellow Rwandan noticed Yves and asked him where he was from. After some initial shyness, he responded to her in their native language. She invited him to her house that evening and cooked him a much needed African meal.
The next day, she took Yves to a government office so he could claim Refugee Status and then on to a homeless shelter where he would live for the next few months.
With little to do, he began jogging every morning and memorizing the streets of Ottawa. He would run past the Château Laurier, Parliament Hill and along the Rideau Canal. One weekend, he entered an open track meet to compete in the half marathon, a race he had never run. Unaware of the number of laps, he still won by a sizeable distance.
“As I was running, people were cheering me on saying ‘Good job!’ but I didn’t understand what they meant because I didn’t know that English expression. I was thinking ‘running isn’t my job, I do it for fun’,” joked the 20-year-old.
After the race, Yves was approached by Mike Woods, a Canadian Junior mile and 3000m record-holder who asked him if he would like to join his running club. While still living in a homeless shelter, he gradually became accustomed to his new life with the help of his teammates.
One morning, Nicole Le Saux was reading the paper when she came across an article about a young, homeless Rwandan distance runner. Feeling awful about Yves’ situation, she had her daughter contact a friend who happened to be one of Yves’ teammates.
“I invited him over for dinner on a Sunday night. We liked him so much that before we served dessert, we asked him if he’d like to live with us,” said Nicole, an infectious disease physician.
“She took me in. She treated me like a mother,” remembered Yves.
She ensured Yves became fluent in English in two years time so that he could graduate high school at the standard age. Nicole enrolled Yves in Glebe Collegiate Institute’s ESL program and practiced English with him every day.
As his English improved, so did his dominance on the track and the trail. In Grade 11, Yves finished first in the OFSAA 1500m, 3000m, and Cross Country Championship, and repeated his 1500m and Cross Country titles in Grade 12. Impressively, he also graduated in the spring of 2012 with the rest of his classmates.
After being highly recruited, Yves chose to attend the University of Guelph, whose Men’s Cross Country team has won the national title for the last seven consecutive years. A contributing factor to the 20-year-old’s decision was the fact that Guelph is just a bus ride away from his Canadian family: Nicole, her husband Jim, and their daughters.
Last year as a freshman, the Gryphon runner was the Ontario University Athletics 10k, 1000m, and 1500m silver medallist, Canadian Interuniversity Sport 1500m silver medallist, and won both the OUA and CIS gold medal as a member of Guelph’s 4x800m relay. Evidently, he was named the OUA Cross Country Rookie of the Year, OUA Track and Field Rookie of the Year, and the CIS Track and Field Rookie of the Year. The sophomore will be looking to capture another medal this Saturday when he competes in the OUA Cross Country Championship in Hamilton.
“It’s amazing what a human can achieve when they have shelter, when they have a roof over their head and don’t have to worry about feeding themselves,” said Nicole.
After his first season, the former refugee is already one of the most decorated runners in the country. Rather than allowing the obstacles in his life to obstruct his path, he has chosen to climb over them and continue running.
“I want to compete in the Olympics for Canada because this country has supported me. Most Canadians care about immigrants. You have all the opportunities you want here, Canada is paradise,” said Yves.
He often speaks to his aunt over Skype, hoping to one day bring her to Ottawa. Sometimes he translates conversations between her and Nicole, both of whom he refers to “Mom”.
Yves Sikubwabo’s story is a testament to not only individual perseverance, but to the impact one act of kindness can make in life. The young runner would not be where he is today without the selfless generosity of others.
His journey reminds us to keep running, because we never know what lies beyond the next hill.
Editor's note: The OUA cross country championship is Saturday, Oct. 26 at Chedoke Golf Course in Hamilton, Ont. Yves will be running alongside his Guelph Gryphon teammates, who are looking for their ninth consecutive men's team banner.