Claire Karekezi fled the mass killings in Rwanda with her family at the age of 10.
When she returns from Canada in July this year, she will become Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon.
“We grew up with fear, but we grew up with survival instincts — we have to push, we have to get through this,” Karekezi told CTV News about how she and her family were able to survive after escaping the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.
Some 800,000 people – ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were killed in 100 days by Hutu militias.
More than two million refugees fled Rwanda, generating a humanitarian crisis.
Karekezi said that with the help of her parents, she was able to go to school in Canada, where she performed incredibly well in science.
In high school, she decided that she would become a doctor to “help people.”
When Karekezi applied for a one-year training programme in advanced cancer brain surgery at Toronto Western Hospital, there were several other applications but she was picked largely due to her academic prowess and her personal story.
“I have a soft spot for underdogs,” Canadian neurosurgeon, Dr Mark Bernstein, who chose Karekezi for the position said.
“And just like Rwanda has picked itself up, Claire has picked herself up. She has dogged determination to succeed in neurosurgery.”
Karekezi has now learned skills in how to perform skull-based surgery for complicated tumours, awake brain surgery and the intricate details of patient care.
“She’s very engaging. Patients love her, she loves patients – that’s important,” Bernstein said.
“I think because of her skills and because of her wonderful personality, she’ll be able to make headway back home.”
Karekezi debunked claims that surviving the Rwandan genocide inspired her to become a doctor, but she stressed that the sad incident had shaped her into what she is now.
Seeing how her friends and family managed to move on despite losing their loved ones, Karekezi knew that she could also make it.
When she returns to Rwanda in July, she plans to help develop cancer care in the country.