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Students learn hard lessons of humanity from genocide survivor

Emmanuel Habimana shares harsh fact that genocide occurs still today


by: REVIEW PHOTOS  - Emmanuel Habimana, a genocide survivor from Rwanda, addressed students at Riverdale High School last week, telling them about his experiences.The high school curriculum deals with pretty heavy topics these days; students learn complex subjects such as engineering, calculus, honors history and English courses. This trimester, Riverdale students are able to take Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, a course designed by teacher David Thompson, which looks at issues surrounding genocide in the last 100 years. The course is rotated into the curriculum every other year.

“Two years ago, we had the opportunity to bring a Holocaust survivor to Riverdale to speak to students, and today we have another opportunity to hear from a genocide survivor,” said Thompson. “Emmanuel Habimana survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and is currently a student at Lewis & Clark College, through the Romeo Dallaire Scholarship, which is given to student from sub-Saharan Africa who has demonstrated interest in working with human rights issues there.”

As a project for the class, student Olivia Wolf contacted Habimana and asked him to visit Riverdale and talk with students about his experiences.

“It really became apparent that his information was important for all of the students at Riverdale, not just those in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict,” said Wolf. “If we are about building awareness, this is something everyone should hear.”

“That’s a big part of why I like to teach this class,” said Thompson. “So many people think this doesn’t happen anymore or it couldn’t happen in our part of the world, but it does. Exploring cases of genocide not only allow us to think critically about the factors that can lead to genocide and the influences on international response, but also gives us the opportunity to ask and investigate essential moral questions, like ‘How can people be that evil?’ ‘Can we forgive or reconcile with the perpetrators?’ and ‘How can the international community just stand by when genocide is occurring?’”

Habimana spoke to the students about his experience as a genocide survivor. He said that most of his work has been “in counseling fellow survivors in unity and reconciliation, helping them with their basic needs and providing education about genocide in the world.”

“He frequently stopped to connect with students and to make sure they understood where he was emotionally,” said Thompson. “For example, at one point he was talking about the anxiety he felt as a 9-year-old when he was living in a shelter in a church in the days immediately after his parents and family were killed. He felt awkward about asking another family for food — but he was hungry and didn’t know where else to turn. He was emotionally torn about whether to ask them for help, or if he would be imposing too much. As he told the story, he asked the students ‘Do you know what that feels like?’ I was thinking ‘Of course not,’ since none of us have lived through that terror — and at the same time, ‘of course.’”

Wolf said Habimana’s presentation made a big impression on the students.

“This was the best presentation we’ve had at Riverdale,” said Wolf. “When he talked about seeing his father die ... it was so personal and students were really moved and appreciated what he shared.”

“I was humbled by Emmanuel’s wisdom that we all share that common humanity,” said Thompson. “That many students do know what it’s like to be a child and be afraid. To be anxious about asking for help — for being too much of a burden. Anxious about doing the right thing or making the right decision. Anxious about being thrust into a situation where we are being asked to grow up fast.”

Thompson said Habimana’s presentation had triggered much discussion about what the school might do to further awareness in the community about genocide, and definitely has spurred thoughtful conversations at the school.

“By looking at a broader perspective and bringing several genocides into the discussion, we also see that this is not just something that happened ‘in a different place in a different time,’” said Thompson. “We can’t say ‘this couldn’t happen anymore.’ We see that it isn’t just something that happened to ‘someone in history’ — genocide has happened on every inhabited continent, has been perpetrated against Christians, Muslims, Jews and a host of other faith groups, and has happened throughout the last century and continues to occur today.”

Lewis & Clark’s Romeo Dallaire Scholarship honors the work and vision of Romeo Dalliere, former commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Rwanda, a Canadian Army lieutenant-general (retired) and humanitarian. The scholarship allows recipients to enroll in the Academic English Studies program at L&C for one academic year while experiencing firsthand the history and habits of diverse cultures even as they share with others their own traditions, customs, insights and beliefs.

The Dallaire Award Fund continues to advance the principle that has guided the college’s programs in international education for more than 40 years: Global understanding is rooted in relationship, and relationships are built day by day and person to person. To learn more about the program, visit lclark.edu/programs/academic_English_studies/dallaire_scholarship/.