Violence upended Marie Claire’s life and education — but it won’t define her future

Marie Claire speaks at an event in her home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Melissa Hess Photography / Church World Service)

Marie Claire speaks at an event in her home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Melissa Hess Photography / Church World Service)

After fleeing a conflict that claimed her mother’s life, the 20 year-old is committed to use her education to help others

Since she was a child living in the Congo, Marie Claire was always on the move. The war in the Congo forced her family to flee to Zambia. “We ran from house to house, place to place,” she remembers.

With more than five million people killed, the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The violence tore families apart and uprooted thousands — including Marie Claire’s.

Even though her family was forced to leave their home in the Congo, Marie Claire was happy when she was able to go to school for the first time in a refugee camp in Zambia. Girls in her home community didn’t go to school because there wasn’t anywhere for them to go, she said.

Marie Claire started in Grade 3 and advanced through Grade 6. For the first time in her life, she was moving forward — not just from one place to another.

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But it didn’t last long. Because they were refugees in Zambia, her family faced harassment from the other people in the town where they lived. “This is not your country,” the villagers would tell them. One day, they came into Marie Claire’s home and attacked her parents.

Her mother pleaded, “Take my life as long as you protect my children.” Marie Claire watched as both of her parents were beaten and her mother killed. Thinking Marie Claire’s father was dead, the attackers left. Thankfully, he was still alive and able to recover.

While in the refugee camp, her mother applied to resettle her family in the United States. But with their mother gone, the family lost hope that they could ever leave. They tried to move on. Her older sister enrolled in the local school and completed through grade 9. She then decided to help her father in the house so Marie Claire to go to school in her place.

Eventually they learned their family was selected to move to the United States. They had almost forgotten about the possibility, believing those dreams of resettlement died when their mother did. They chose to leave Zambia. “We needed to have a future,” Marie Claire says about her family’s decision. On October 27, 2015, Marie Claire and her family arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to begin a new life.

By then, Marie Claire was 18 years-old and she enrolled in the local high school. “Everything was different,” Marie Claire said about adjusting to her new school. But she knew she needed education to have a better life.

In June 2016, Marie Claire graduated with a 3.7 GPA. Her family proudly watched as she became the first in their family to graduate from high school. And for Marie Claire, this is just the beginning.

Today, Marie Claire is studying to become a nurse so she can use her education to help others who are suffering. She is proud to be a role model for her younger brothers and older sister, who recently finished her GED. Marie Claire shares her story because she hopes it will empower other girls. Her advice: “Your past shouldn’t stop you from moving forward and trying to change the world.”



Hannah W. Orenstein is digital manager at Malala Fund. Her favourite ice cream flavour is pistachio.