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Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller - January 2016

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Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller - January 2016

Just down the street is someone with an amazing story.

In 1981 when Anna Bimenyimana was 13, her mother sent her away from Rwanda to a Catholic boarding school in Brussels. (Rwanda is a former Belgian colony.) Her father had died, and her mother feared that Anna would not be safe at home while her mom was away, running the family business.

After Brussels she went to business college in Montreal. As a result, Anna was spared the genocide that occurred in 1994. Close to a million people were murdered in three months, directed by the Rwandan government. “They heard it on the radio, that they should go and kill Tutsis, so they did it.”

Together we are feeling the horror of what people can do.

“The human being is just this close to becoming like that,” said Anna, holding up a thumb and long straight forefinger with just a small space in between.

Anna and I were at Crisp, a bakery on West Napa Street. I had visited her recycled clothing store, Bon Marche, on Riverside and saw that the profits help Rwandan women fight chronic nutrition and start small businesses.

I was very interested. At the time, I was editing a book by a Rwandan woman who had been pursued by the Hutus as she ran through the forests with her little brother and sister. They survived, but the story of what they experienced is hard to read.

Anna’s family were Tutsis and Seventh Day Adventists. They were on the list of those to be killed.

“Seventh Day Adventist is big in Rwanda,” said Anna.

Anna is a handsome woman, fashionably dressed on this rainy day, with a beautiful white embroidered scarf around her neck, her hair worn becomingly short. She looks directly at me as we talk. “I tell my kids, Pay attention to people. When people talk to you, look in their face. Be kind.”

Anna has two daughters. She met her second husband in Montreal. He is a software engineer who helps the Rwandan government computerize.

How did she land in Sonoma?

“My husband Antoine, he is from here and he wanted to go back. I live in Paradise, he said.” They moved here in 2000.

“I love Sonoma. It’s so serene, it makes me feel calm.”

In 2004 she decided to open an export business, buying second-hand clothing and shipping it overseas in big containers. Used American apparel is sold all over the world, in Africa, South America, Philippines, Turkey, even China. “In China they fix them up and sell them in Dubai.”

She rented a warehouse on Eighth Street East and ran the business for six years.

“I wanted to be able to grow my business and help my people after the war. But the work was too hard.

“When I closed it, I had tons of stuff left over. My girlfriend told me to open a thrift store. We already had nonprofit status. My husband was going back and forth to Rwanda, helping the government computerize. He told me, We need to help them.”

She opened Bon Marche in 2007. All profits go to Rwanda through the Kigali Center for Entrepreneurs (KCE). Now she has two stores, one downtown on First Street West. Last year in November a fire burned up the shop on Riverside and its contents. With the help of the community, she relocated down the street within weeks.

“When I wake up in the morning I ask myself how can I help more people. Older women come into the shop, you can tell they are homeless. I give them whatever they need.” She doesn’t need a piece of paper to verify that they are unemployed. “You can tell when people are suffering.”

Her mother, 84, still lives in Kigali, the capitol. “They couldn’t kill her. She helped too many people. She was on their list, but they would say, I can’t kill her, she helped my family, she sent my cousin to school.

“But one time, they forced my brothers to lie on the floor and said they would kill them if she didn’t give them money. She didn’t have anything left. She told them, Wait one minute. She came back with her Bible. When she held it up, they ran away!

“I told her, you are smart, mom. She said, ‘No, it just came to me.’”

She just prayed.

Our stories are the true history of our times, but so many are lost. Beginning January 7 I will be offering a storytelling group. If you’re interested in joining us or in recording your own family history, please contact me by email at hiller.stephanie@gmail.com