On Sunday afternoon, Dan Rugomba ’16 — brimming with confidence and a touch of nerves — walked across the stage of the International and Global Studies commencement ceremony to receive his college diploma. He never thought he would make it here.

Seven years ago, Rugomba faced war in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the loss of his relatives and friends. “Ever since my childhood, my life has been characterized by great loss,” Rugomba said in an interview with the Justice. “Eventually, by God’s grace, I got a chance to a new life.”

Rugomba credits this chance at a new life to the opportunity to come to the United States as a refugee in September of 2008. School was always a priority of his, and in 2009, he was awarded a scholarship to attend St. Mary’s High School in St. Louis, MO. In 2010, Rugomba’s teachers were so inspired by his life story that they created a Justice and Peace award for him.

According to Rugomba, the award served as a stark turning point in his life, in which he realized that he had an immense responsibility to seek justice for other victims and survivors of war. 

Through  this, he was inspired to create a project focused on building the first transitional housing of its kind in St. Louis for fellow war survivors and refugees.

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By PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MIHIR KHANNA/the Justice

WORKING TOWARD RECONCILIATION: Dan Rugomba ’16 hopes that refugees living together will move past animosity.

“I had a choice, really, to either look back and be shackled by the trauma of my past or really to make the second choice of embarking on a new life journey of hope. And that process would only start by forgiving my offenders, and that is what helped me, to a great extent, to overcome the reality of that ... and [to] focus my energy on building a new life,” Rugomba explained.

The program, dubbed by Rugomba  “A Second Chance to a New Life,” seeks to create adequate living spaces through close collaborations with local real estate brokers, architects, artists and interior designers. 

Rugomba will work with them to identify abandoned buildings in fair conditions that can be renovated into transitional homes for incoming war survivors and refugees.

“One of the program’s objectives will be to bring together various skillsets ... and to transform the abandoned buildings into safe, energy-efficient, cost-effective two-bedroom homes to refugee families of low-income. So these rental properties will be set up in safe but underserved communities in St. Louis, Missouri that receive refugees from conflicted areas of the world,” he said.

“A Second Chance to a New Life” will differ from current transitional housing for refugees because it will create structures that allow refugees to become entirely self-sufficient. 

According to Rugomba, when refugees arrive in new cities, they are often placed in inadequate living spaces in areas that are prone to drugs to gang violence. 

This, coupled with their traumatic pasts, disrupts their integration into the socioeconomic reality of the United States.

“One of the main considerations in locating the transitional home[s], will be to find safe neighborhoods where they [refugees] can start off their lives ... and get on route to achieve fully social and economic independence,” he said.

Having been a refugee himself, Rugomba recognizes that the transitional process takes a lot of time and usually exceeds the three-month period that counselors and agencies provide. He aims to solve this unique problem by having his program deeply invested in the long-term integration process. 

He hopes that, through this, the most vulnerable refugees will be cared for.

“That’s why I wanted to go beyond just the traditional approach of crafting a business plan. ... I wanted to raise my consciousness to be fully aware and understand the social ramifications of this kind of social business in the community. And so I did sufficient groundwork to establish that the market for these affordable properties are in high demand, especially amongst the refugees, which is the market niche that I plan to serve,” Rugomba explained. Many of the properties currently available to refugees are either improperly maintained or too expensive for most to afford. 

Last summer, Rugomba visited St. Louis to meet with real estate brokers to begin the process of constructing his first transitional housing program. 

Two months ago, Rugomba started a GoFundMe page called “A Second Chance to a New Life” that encouraged 100 people to contribute in order to meet his fundraising goal of $10,000. This, coupled with his personal savings for the project, will enable him to further appeal to investors and organizations in order to begin construction.

His  goal is for the program to spread to cities across the United States and ultimately have communities step in to take control of them. This will encourage local governments, city developers and real estate investors to engage with the importance of housing for refugees.

“Once the project is mature enough, I can invite the community to have full ownership of the spaces, and then I can move to another city, and move to another city, and encourage them to replicate the idea,” he explained.  

Eventually, Rugomba plans to spread this project to other cities and to different kinds of refugees, but for now, he is focused on building in St. Louis with a particular focus on refugees from east and central Africa ,due to his personal understanding of the conflict.

Most notably, he hopes to use the transitional housing initiative to bring reconciliation and justice to both sides of the war divide. 

“True justice, I believe, should involve a process of peace building, and for this to happen, both the offender and the offended need to forgive each other but [also to] take that step farther — wanting to embrace each other again. 

“That is the only way peace can be sustainable, and that new promising life can be born again. This is one way that I feel I can bring about a culture of reconciliation — when their kids share the same spaces,” Rugomba said.

As for Rugomba, his time at Brandeis and degree in International and Global Studies have heightened his knowledge of peace building. 

After graduating, he will begin working for the Northeast Bank, a community bank where, as an intern, he has gained invaluable insight about the housing market. 

This, coupled with the support from the family and friends that he made in the United States, has allowed him to successfully integrate as a refugee and continue his mission for reconciliation and peace building.

“If true  peace will ever be achieved, then these tough  dialogues need to begin. Just some sort of process that will bring us together again and assume reconciliation. 

We might not see it fully come to fruition this generation, but we need to prepare it for the next,” he said.

— Editor’s note: Brianna Majsiak was a Justice editor prior to her  graduation this week.