As a survivor of the genocide that swept Rwanda over two decades ago, this woman is making history as the country’s first female neurosurgeon.

As a child growing up in Rwanda during the 1980s and ‘90s, Claire Karekezi dreamed of becoming a doctor. But what she calls her “guiding star” has taken her far beyond that initial goal to join the ranks of what is perhaps medicine’s most demanding specialty.

At only 35, Claire Karekezi, is currently finishing up her training at Toronto Western Hospital, where she has specialized in brain tumor removal. As of July, she will return to her native country, where she’ll join the other four male neurosurgeons who are currently practicing.

Providing that service to brain cancer patients in a country with only one hospital-based MRI and few CT scanners will be a daunting task, but it’s one Karekezi is determined to overcome, just as she has all the challenges and sacrifices needed to fulfill her childhood dream.

Her 12-year-journey has taken her to Sweden, England, Morocco, and now Canada — all with the goal of eventually returning to Rwanda.

“It’s passion, it’s dedication,” she tells the Toronto Star. “It’s not about money — I’m living my dream and I love what I do.

“This is something I can do. This is something I can bring back to Rwanda.”

Karekezi was only 10 years old when the genocide took place in 1994, and she says she lost family members in the tragedy. The Hutu-controlled Rwandan government and allied militias slaughtered between 800,000 and one million Tutsis before a rebel group overthrew them. More than 100,000 Hutus were also killed.

Four mass graves filled with victims from the genocide were only just found last month nearly 24 years after the tragedy.

“I always tell people that that’s what sort of made us who we are today as Rwandese people because we grew up knowing that we cannot count on anyone but ourselves,” she explained to the Star.

“So this kind of spirit kept me going, to do whatever it takes to get where I want to go,” she says. “I keep pushing because the genocide happened, the whole world was watching and no one did anything. But we came through that, we are a strong nation, and we have very brave people who have managed to do impressive things now.”


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