Graduates to Watch

Clairette Kirezi of Westbrook is the 2020 valedictorian at Greater Portland Christian School. She plans to become a doctor and open a hospital and school in her native Rwanda. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Clairette Kirezi became a second mother to her siblings after her family immigrated to the United States.

She was just 10 years old. Her mother fled poverty and political unrest in Rwanda, left her two daughters with family friends in Georgia, and returned to the central African country to finalize their departure plans.

“I had to grow up fast and take care of my sister,” Kirezi said. “It was a struggle to learn English and experience a new culture and live without my mother.”

Five months later her mother returned to Georgia, moved the family to Portland and later enrolled her daughters at the Greater Portland Christian School in South Portland, where Kirezi is valedictorian of her class. Kirezi’s father remained in Rwanda.

Kirezi’s family lived in homeless shelters at first and eventually settled in Westbrook. Her mother, who was pregnant before she left Rwanda, gave birth to her younger brother shortly after arriving in Maine.

When she wasn’t in school, Kirezi took care of her siblings so her mother could study to become a certified nursing assistant and work as a caregiver for disabled adults. It was a heavy responsibility she came to accept.

“It became second nature to me,” she said. “Everyone does what they have to do. I don’t resent it. It has prepared me for the next step in my life.”

At school, she participated in soccer, basketball, drama and chapel worship. “Faith is a big part of my life,” she said. “God is what keeps me going. God is always watching over me.”

Kirezi, 19, also volunteered twice a week at the American Red Cross blood drive center and took algebra and physics classes at Southern Maine Community College.

A four-year honor student, she has been accepted to the pre-med program at the University of Pittsburgh. She plans to become a doctor and open a hospital and school in Rwanda so she can train others to improve medical care in her native country.

But Maine is her home now, Kirezi said, and she is grateful that her mother took the risk to bring her family here.

“Coming here was the best decision for our family,” she said. “My mother sacrificed her life for us. I’m going places I never thought I’d go. I wouldn’t change a single thing. It’s the path that God wanted for me.”