First Burundian to be a Toronto police officer came to Canada as a refugee
February 12, 2019
Even though it has been nearly 11 years since new Toronto Police officer Alain Arakaza lost his mother, she’s still with him.
Tucked away inside his police forage hat is a photo of Germaine Ndayingukiye who died on Christmas Eve 2008 in Kenya.
She and her three sons fled Burundi a year earlier because of civil unrest.
“Mom lost her life on the journey that brought us here,” said the youngest sibling. “She sacrificed so much so we could have a better life. If I am having a bad day, all I need to do is look at that picture. It’s a reminder that I should never give up.”
It was because of their mother that Arakaza and his brothers came to Canada as refugees in October 2009.
Before passing away, Ndayingukiye approached an official at the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi seeking help to get them out of their squalid living conditions.
Canada's largest mission in Africa, the high commission is accredited to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Eritrea, Somalia as well as the United Nations (UN) Environment and Habitat programs and UN offices in Nairobi.
“We were shocked to see this White gentleman in our slum area seeking us out,” recalled Arakaza. “He told us about mom’s request and promised he would do his best for us. That was a huge lift as our request to enter the United States as refugees was denied 20 days before mom died. The reason given was her illness. We lived in eight different places in the two years we were there and life was hard. At the time, we weren’t going to school, we ate once a day and the meal wasn’t much. All we did was play sports and go to church which, I think, helped us to stay positive.”
The Canadian government official kept his word.
Two months after their interview in March 2009, the brothers received their visas. They landed in Ottawa in October that year.
“It was like if we had arrived in heaven coming from a place where we had no electricity, running water, fast food restaurant, television or cell phone,” said Arakaza. “We were just surviving. Now, we were in a safe environment and getting breakfast, lunch and dinner. Those are things that a lot of people take for granted. For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of hope.”
Fluent in French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Arakaza quickly determined he would have to learn English in order to fulfil his dream of becoming a police officer.
He returned to the classroom and, a decade later, speaks the language confidently.
After almost three years as a Canadian Armed Forces gunner, Arakaza joined Toronto Community Housing (TCH) as a special constable. With Toronto Police hiring freeze lifted in late 2017, he jumped at the opportunity.
“This is a job I have always pictured myself doing,” the Algonquin College of Applied Arts & Technology police foundations graduate said. “It’s a career that offers job security and the opportunity to provide for my family when I get one. I don’t want them to go through what I did. The other thing is that I could relate to people in the community who are having tough times. I know what struggle and hardship are like and can relate to them.”
A year ago, Arakaza – who is a member of the Canadian Forces reservist -- reunited with his father for the first time in 10 years.
The senior military officer, who was arrested, tortured and jailed during the civil war, now resides in Rwanda.
Dana Gidlow, the president of the Toronto Police Military Veterans Association, presented Arakaza with his badge at the January 31 graduation.
“When I came to Toronto, I sought out Dana as a mentor,” said the recruit who is assigned to 32 Division. “We connected and developed a friendship.”
Gidlow is a member of the Toronto Police Talent Acquisition team that does background checks on members of the public who have applied to be Service members or TCH special constables.
“Alain’s file was on my desk when he was trying to be a special constable,” he said. “During the process, we spoke as I had a few question for him. When I looked at his background and his qualifications, I asked if he would be interested in becoming a Toronto Police officer and that is what led to his hiring.”
For Arakaza’s older siblings, seeing their brother graduate was emotional.
“I am so proud to see how far he has reached,” said University of Ottawa graduate Camille Kamanzi who founded a youth-led non-governmental organization, ‘Burundi We Want’. “He was unsuccessful quite a few times in his bid to get on the Ottawa Police Service. This is not only a big moment for our family and friends, but also the Burundi community as he’s the first from that country to become a Toronto cop.”
Through group messaging, Kemanzi provided their father and other family members in Africa and around the world with live updates of the graduation ceremony.
Older brother Igor Gahizi, a heavy duty vehicle operator in Alberta, also attended the graduation.