by Nori Gale
Liliane Ruvakubusa’s path to finding a home here with us at WEX was by no means easy or ordinary. She has faced more challenges than the average WEXer and brings a rich and interesting history with her wherever she goes.
Hailing from Bujumbura, Burundi
Ruvakubusa was born and raised in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. Belgium colonized Burundi between 1914 and 1962, so, like most other Burundian children her age, Ruvakubusa was taught in French by Belgian educators starting in primary school and began to learn English in the seventh grade. She went on to study Economics at the University of Burundi as an undergraduate and later earned a Master’s Degree in Economic and Financial Risk Management from IAGREDI (African Institute for Risk Management and International Development in Bujumbura, Burundi). After graduation, Ruvakubusa worked for the American Embassy in Bujumbura as a Wang System Manager for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). From there, she worked as an Information Management Specialist and then took a job in the banking industry, where she stayed for over fifteen years.
In 1993, Burundi entered into a civil war that lasted until 2005. This political unrest, along with a new wave of violence in 2015, led to the upheaval and emigration of over 300 thousand citizens who fled to nearby African countries and far beyond, creating a Burundian diaspora throughout the world. The 2015 conflict began when the sitting president, President Pierre Nkurunziza, announced he was running for a third term, in violation of the country’s constitution. People took to the streets in protest and many reacted to the situation by hiding in their homes out of fear of reprisals. Ruvakubusa knew she needed to flee the country to protect her young son and herself from the violence that was happening in the streets. She was leaving behind her mom, her sisters, a large extended family, and a great job in Burundi. But the political turmoil had become too difficult to bear, so she packed up what belongings she was able to bring with her and she and her youngest son fled.
Ruvakubusa left Burundi at the end of April 2015, two weeks after demonstrations had started. The economy had been shut down and the only International Airport in Bujumbura had been closed. She and her son traveled by car to Rwanda, which borders Burundi to the North. They boarded a plane in Kigali, Rwanda, and traveled over eight thousand miles and across the Atlantic Ocean to the States. Landing here on May 1 of 2015, they were reunited with Ruvakubusa’s husband who had emigrated to America in 2009, and her two older children who live in Canada. Ruvakubusa expressed gratitude to be in a place where she can feel safe and be with her husband, but the trials she experienced to get to a place of security and gainful employment were grueling. Amidst the struggles many immigrants face when arriving in America, Ruvakubusa found great comfort in Southern Maine’s large Burundian and Rwandan community, a support system that has helped her through her transition and resulted in many new friendships.
Challenges Finding Meaningful Work in her New Home
Among the difficulties Ruvakubusa experienced when she first got to the States was finding work in her field. She first worked at Walmart as a cashier and then as a salesperson at Macy’s at the Maine Mall. Around this time, Ruvakubusa discovered the New Mainers Resource & Maine’s Welcome Back Center, located at Portland Adult Education, and coordinated by Sally Sutton. Of Sutton, Ruvakubusa says, “She is an amazing soul who really cares about preparing new Mainers (immigrants) to enter the workforce by providing them all the necessary resources, training, and networking available for them to succeed. I am so grateful to her!”
Sutton connected Ruvakubusa with Goodwill Workforce Solutions whose goal was to try to match recent immigrants with jobs appropriate to their skill level, assist with mock interviews, and help them improve English within their field of study: Ruvakubusa took classes on “English for IT,” for example. It was through Goodwill Workforce Solutions that Ruvakubusa applied for and landed a three-month IT internship with the City of Portland where she used ESRI GIS mapping software to create a story map of the Arts in the City of Portland. She continued to attend mock interviews and while participating in one, she met a local attorney and leader named Charles E. Miller, Esq., Senior Of Counsel, and former CEO of Portland law firm Bernstein Shur. He emerged from their interview full of energy and enthusiasm about her:
“I was with a group from our firm that participated in mock interviews at Goodwill Workforce Solutions for recent immigrants to the United States…One individual whom I interviewed stood out. Liliane Ruvakubusa was in the workforce for 28 years in Burundi and recently came to the United States to be reunited with her husband…In 37 years, I have interviewed well over 500 individuals for Bernstein Shur (as well as several others for civic and charitable organizations). I have rarely interviewed someone as competent and well-spoken as Ms. Ruvakubusa.”
Miller was so impressed by Ruvakubusa that he took up her cause and sent a letter about her, attaching her resume, to his contacts at local businesses, including WEX. He goes on to say, “I took it upon myself to send personal letters (along with Liliane’s resume) to friends and contacts at large employers in Cumberland County on Liliane’s behalf recommending that they interview her. The real hero was Hilary Rapkin who not only responded to me but was touched by Liliane’s story and sent Liliane’s resume to WEX’s H.R. Department. The rest is history.” Says Hilary Rapkin, Chief Legal Officer at WEX, “We are grateful to people like Charlie who think of WEX when they come across candidates like Liliane. We are always looking for ways to further diversify our employee base and Liliane’s skills and ability, as well as her incredible work ethic, make her a great fit for the culture here at WEX. We’re so glad she’s made a home here.”
Shortly thereafter, Ruvakubusa received a phone call from Gimbala Sankare, Director of Global Talent Acquisition and Diversity at WEX, who asked her to come in and be interviewed, and she soon joined the company as an employee.
Finding a New Place to Expand her Expertise Here at WEX
Ruvakubusa joined WEX as an accounting associate in April of 2017. Since then, she’s worked as a fraud analyst for WEX and now serves as a business intelligence analyst for the company. In her current position, Ruvakubusa creates advanced periodic reporting using analytical tools to monitor fraud KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and report on overall risk fraud and charges-offs in order to forecast the financial impact on monthly reserves. She also conducts quality assurance for fraud detection and claims management.
She plans to further her education with a scholarship award she was just granted to the Harvard Business Analytics program. Through this program, she hopes to improve her analytics skills and become more adept at the new analytics technologies she began using when she came to WEX. At this point, Ruvakubusa does the dashboards and KPIs manually. She’s interested in the prospect of making them automated by learning better and more advanced technologies. She’s also been taking advantage of internal training programs at WEX.
Pining for the Flavors and Rhythms of Home
While Ruvakubusa has been invigorated by her job and all the learning she’s been doing, she shared with me some of the things she misses about home. One thing she pines for is the food that’s difficult to find in the States. For instance, a particular variety of green banana that grows in Burundi that wouldn’t be sold in Shaw’s or Hannaford or Whole Foods. This type of banana is different from plantains because it’s not sweet and she likes to prepare it fried and mixed with beans or corn. She also misses the ground meatballs and Burundian vegetables (like lengalenga), cassava leaves and fufu, the Burundian bread made with cassava, and the grilled Mukeke Fish from Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura. (Ruvakubusa shared with me that this lake is the second deepest in the world. Lake Baikal in Russia takes the title of deepest lake on earth.) She recently discovered that lengalenga is being grown by a group of Burundian immigrants in Massachusetts and also that “Moriah Store” on Cumberland Avenue in Portland sometimes stocks her favorite bananas from back home as well as fish that she loves from Lake Kivu on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
Ruvakubusa also misses the social life she had back home. In Burundi, her extended family spent a lot of time together which is not something she experiences as much here in the U.S. She has made the best of things by creating a new extended family of Burundian and Rwandan friends.
Thinking of some of Burundi’s traditions makes her nostalgic at times but she is happy to note that there have been local weddings and events in Portland that she’s been fortunate to attend that feature the music, dance and customs of home. The traditional dances and the famous sacred Burundian royal drums have become part of new traditions for Ruvakubusa and her community in the States. To spend a few hours on a Saturday with friends who share her traditions is helpful when she’s feeling pangs of nostalgia for the life she left behind when she left Bujumbura.
What she loves about living in the U.S. is her job at WEX and the accessibility of products here. She loves being able to find whatever you want: you think about something you want or need and then you can easily procure it from a local shop or from the mall. (Even sometimes Burundian bananas!)
A Talent for Sewing and Dancing Started at a Young Age
One of her hobbies is sewing, which her mother taught her when she was seven years old. She and her siblings always sewed their own clothes and she continues to love sewing dresses and skirts in her spare time. She likes to create new patterns using African fabrics and other brightly-colored materials in her designs.
Ruvakubusa also enjoys dancing – she is a regular at Zumba classes at the WEX gym in South Portland. She also enjoys West African dance which is usually accompanied by music using traditional instruments such as slit drums, rattles, shakers, scrapers, clappers, bells, gongs, and typically a lute or a harp. West African dancing styles have influenced dance throughout the world, including forms as various as hip hop, jazz, and salsa.
Inspiration from a Strong and Giving Mother
Talking about dance reminds Ruvakubusa of her mother, who Ruvakubusa describes as the biggest influence on her life. As she describes it, “My mum is my hero. She had tremendous capabilities to adapt herself to modern life. She inspired me a long way from my childhood in East Africa to my new home in America. I used all the resources she instilled in me to adapt myself and be a successful woman.” Her mom encouraged her to work hard in school because she stressed that Ruvakubusa was blessed with both the intelligence and opportunities to advance herself. It would be wasting that good fortune if she did not push herself. Ruvakubusa explains that her mom’s motivation to push her stems from the fact that her mom was not given the kinds of opportunities that Ruvakubusa was given. Her mother did not want those opportunities to go to waste. Ruvakubusa believes her business instincts and creativity came from her mom, who had both qualities. Her father was a veterinarian working for the government in agriculture and eventually became the Director of Veterinary Services nationwide. This meant that he and his family traveled all over the country for his work. Ruvakubusa’s mother’s ability to respond gracefully to the constant change that comes with this kind of travel exemplified her adaptability, a strength Ruvakubusa has had to nurture in herself since leaving Burundi.
Another way Ruvakubusa’s mother was an inspiration to her will sound familiar to a lot of readers. It was not until she was living in America and running her own household that she came to appreciate all that her mother did quietly behind the scenes in their home in Bujumbura. Ruvakubusa explained to me that managing a household here in the States is very different for her from what she experienced when she ran her own household back home. In Burundi, Ruvakubusa had hired help—a gardener, a nanny, a cook. Their workdays were such that she and her husband took a mid-day break and went home for lunch for a few hours. When she arrived home for lunch, her food was prepared for her, and when she left to go back to work at 2 PM she had staff to clean up from the meal. Here in the States, she no longer has hired help. This was how her mom’s household was run: her mother did all the housework, sewing, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. Ruvakubusa sees now the value of all the work her mom did and she appreciates how her mom did it quietly and without anyone realizing it was happening behind the scenes. Ruvakubusa’s mother recently passed away and Ruvakubusa traveled to Bujumbura to join with her siblings in memorializing her last year.
Since moving to the States, Ruvakubusa has been able to spend time with her older children who are in comparatively close proximity now, which has been wonderful for her. There is a large Burundian population in Canada where her older children live. Her older son is 27 and is a sound engineer in Ottawa, Canada, and her daughter, 23, is studying and working in Montreal.
Liliane Ruvakubusa’s life in Maine differs from the life she left behind in Burundi. The feelings of missing customs, family, and friendships are tempered by the new people and experiences she’s found in Maine. Her drive and work ethic, along with the support of some of Maine’s best institutions, have led her to WEX, and we are so lucky to have her working among us. Sankare shared with us, “I knew soon after meeting with Liliane that she would be a great fit here. She has the kind of energy and drive we look for in an employee and as we work to build a more rich and diverse employee population here at WEX, we are grateful to find individuals like Liliane who hail from all over the globe and find a home as a WEXer.”
To learn more about WEX, please visit the About WEX page on our web site.