Rwandan refugee takes incredible photos of squirrels to handle trauma

As a young child, Niki Colemont found it hard to adjust to life in Belgium. He’d spent the first four years of his life with his family in Rwanda.

But he and his older sister, Soni, had had a difficult start to life after their biological mum died three months after Niki was born. Tragically, their dad later died in the civil war in Rwanda.

Feeling like she had no other choice, Niki’s aunt put him and Soni into an orphanage just as the genocide was beginning. Soon, they were adopted by Belgian parents and brought to Europe to start a new life.

Niki, now 35, told The Mirror: “I don’t have much memory of my childhood in Rwanda – it’s all very blank.

“My sister remembered a lot more than me because she was nine years old when we left. But we didn’t talk about it much because she had a pretty tough time.”

One of Niki’s earliest memories was waiting with Soni in a refugee camp in Rwanda for their adoptive parents to pick them up.

When he eventually arrived in Belgium, he was suddenly thrust into a new world, different to everything he’d previously known.

“It was very tough. I didn’t understand the language, the money was coming out of a wall, water was falling from the skies,” Niki said, describing his shock at Western life and weather.

“I’d never seen snow before. It was so cold.”

While he got used to a new life in a different country, Niki was grateful he had his big sister to look after him.

“It made my life growing up a lot easier. I think she saved my life back then, I don’t know how I’d have managed without her,” he said.

“Going to school was a big problem for me too. I had to go to a special school because I was very behind with my knowledge.

“I didn’t know what the different colours were and I had problems with spelling and maths. I was far behind the rest of the kids, it wasn’t easy.”

But in time, Niki managed to catch up in his education and learned to speak the local language, Flemish. He also taught himself English through watching TV shows like Friends.

“I learned to embrace life in Belgium when I made friends. Now I have a family who takes care of me and they’re very supportive, and I’m really happy.”

However, tragedy struck a few years ago when Niki’s rock, Soni, died suddenly.

“We still don’t know what happened,” heartbroken Niki recalled.

“I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. It felt like I couldn’t go on because I didn’t know what had happened to her.”

Luckily, Niki had his girlfriend, Ines, and friends to help him deal with his grief. But he also found solace in a hobby he’d picked up a few years earlier.

He said: “Back in 2016 I was walking around at my girlfriend’s grandad’s house. I was daydreaming and not paying much attention, but suddenly a squirrel came very close to me, maybe a metre away.

“I stood still while the squirrel did his thing. He wasn’t scared at all. I knew I wanted to get closer to these animals, so I bought a feeder for the tree and filled it with walnuts. Then I waited each day for the squirrel to come and eat.”

Soon, Niki, who works for a car manufacturer, was spending all his free time observing the squirrels in the garden – and before long, he was capturing photos of them.

“I started experimenting with different set ups. I made a table and put moss and wood on it. Then I waited for the squirrel to climb up and start eating.

“It was nothing special at first, but then I set up a fizzy drink can and put food in there. I captured a shot of the squirrel with his head in the can.

“I looked at the picture and thought, ‘I can do something with this’. It was the start of something new.”

Niki, who has no formal training in photography, took a few tips from friends about how to capture the perfect shot, and bought some new equipment to enhance the photos.

“I was always thinking about my next shot and trying to get new ideas for pictures. It gives me comfort, it’s like doing yoga,” he explained.

“When I see a squirrel running around, it gives me so much joy. I forget everything around me. It’s like my head is empty, I don’t think about my troubles, I’m just relaxed.”

As Niki’s vision grew, he became more creative about how to capture a good shot, buying props from Facebook Marketplace.

“I have a princess carriage which I bought second hand for €6 and it’s great. Most Barbie items are the perfect size for squirrels,” he said.

When Niki sets up a shot, he’ll place food in just the right position for the squirrel to be at the perfect angle. Then he waits – sometimes for hours – in camouflage.

Although it’s a passion project, Niki hopes to start selling his amazing photos from his picfair account. He also shares his creations on his Instagram, @nikicolemont.

“I want to show people how smart squirrels really are,” he said.

“I also want people to find things that help them relax and be at peace. Everybody should have something that helps them.”