Author: James Moncur
Chantal Mrimi had next to nothing when she arrived in Fife 20 years ago. She couldn’t speak English and had experienced a life of chaos and violence in Rwanda.
But she was blessed with two gifts – an unwavering spirit and a steely determination to succeed.
Two decades on, her dream has become a reality. She is a stalwart of her community, a key player in her local council and the mother of two wonderful sons.
And she wants to use her experience to inspire Scots youngsters to be the best people they can be.
Chantal fought back tears as she tried to put into words how grateful she is to the Scottish people who took her into their hearts.
The 42-year-old said: “Back home I was told I would never make it or do anything. But when I came to Scotland I was immediately welcomed and accepted.
“Scottish folk are used to working hard for everything they’ve got and maybe some of them saw that in me.
“I couldn’t believe how generous and sympathetic they were – I was welcomed with open arms, everywhere I went.”
Chantal’s parents were Tutsis who fled Rwanda during the massacres of 1959, having experienced unspeakable violence.
Two of her younger siblings almost died through malnutrition during the years that followed.
They returned home from exile in the Congo in the early 90s and Chantal quickly found work as a vehicle admin assistant with a British charity to help make ends meet.
She decided to visit Scotland after lengthy chats with her line manager who was from Leven, Fife.
She said: “When I first arrived in London, I was amazed to see white people doing basic tasks like cleaning and working in shops. In Africa, it never happened.
“I met my sponsor family after flying to Edinburgh and as we drove over the Forth Road Bridge, it was like a Hollywood movie – I was awestruck by the huge structures and buildings.
“Later in the trip, I was at a barbecue and the kids were coming up to me and feeling my arms. They wanted to know if I could wash the colour off.
“Many of them had never seen a black person in the flesh. I answered all their questions and spoke about my experiences with them and their parents and made many new friends.”
On a trip to St Andrews, Chantal told of the moment she saw her first kilt, adding: “I saw a man in a skirt and couldn’t believe my eyes. I was quickly given a history lesson about the kilt and took dozens of photos of him that I sent home – my family still talk about the ‘man in the skirt’ today.”
Chantal stayed in Glenrothes for three months on a temporary visa before returning to Africa and emigrated to Scotland two years later, in 1999.
She has since gone on to complete a management degree and is studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics with the Open University.
She initially secured a job with a local interpreter firm translating English into French, Swahili and Rwandan before moving to Fife Council where she is now the PA to three senior managers.
Her work has enabled her to buy her first house as well as help support her parents and a number of orphans they have taken in, in Africa.
Chantal said that living in Scotland has opened her eyes to democracy and human rights.
She said: “Settling here made me realise that even although I am a woman, I have rights.
“In Africa, women are not taught about their rights. Now I live in a free country.”
Ten years after Chantal arrived in Fife, she set up a project which enabled Scots to visit Rwanda, build links with the country’s people and listen to their stories.
She believed the project would raise awareness of Rwanda’s history and promote positive relations between Scots and refugees.
She also wrote a book called The Journey of My Life from Rwanda, which detailed her survival story.
As well as providing a huge inspiration for others it helped her come to terms with her own situation and get her own thoughts together.
Describing the chaos she left behind and the reason she wrote her book, she said: “The genocide happened in Rwanda’s very recent past so every Rwandan has been affected by it.
“There are so many reminders of what happened and people are still traumatised by the past.
“Before I came to Fife, I had locked away so many experiences because I didn’t have time to deal with them in Africa. Everyone was the same – we were busy living minute to minute.
“Writing the book helped me slowly come to terms with everything that had happened.”
Chantal played a central role in the recent 70th birthday celebrations of Glenrothes, which was hailed as the town of the future when it was planned in 1948.
The original intention was to build a settlement for up to 35,000 people but today, more than 50,000 live there.
She now wants to help inspire the town’s youngsters on to bigger and better things.
She said: “I want to really contribute to the society that has done so much for me and my family. I want to help shape policies for my community within the council and I also visit schools to speak to the children.
“I remind them that they live in an incredible country with an amazing history of inventions and brilliant thinkers. I tell them that they are the leaders of tomorrow and remind them of their duty to Scotland.”
And she added: “I take my sons back home to Africa every two years to remind them of their history but I’m also immensely proud they are Scottish and their roots are here.
“We could not have chosen a better country to call our home.”