Rwandan Genocide Survivor Encourages Students To Be Agents of Change

Moses Brown School recently welcomed internationally-recognized human rights activist Jacqueline Murekatete to the Woodman Center, where she shared her incredible story as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Moses Brown eighth graders and upper schoolers were joined by students from schools across Rhode Island for the event presented in partnership with the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center.

Born in Rwanda, Jacqueline was nine years old when she lost her parents, all six siblings, and most of her extended family in the 1994 genocide. She founded the Genocide Survivors Foundation to raise awareness and support for fellow genocide survivors, and she continues to educate others about genocide and extremism through telling her personal story.

At MB, eighth grade students study Rwanda in the broader context of African history. Middle school history teacher Jon Gold notes that the course covers the deep causes of the genocide: the country’s colonial and post-colonial history, ethnic division, cynical leadership, and the lack of intervention by the international community. “However, we come to see that genocide lies beyond our explanatory powers,” remarks Jon. “We are seeking to understand the un-understandable. And that is why testimony, first-hand, honest, bracing testimony, like what heard from Jacqueline, is so essential to our learning.” 

 Jacqueline began her presentation by showing a short film about the genocide in Rwanda to give context to the young audience, whom she mentions were most most likely not even born when the atrocity occurred. She then discussed the definition of genocide and explained the ethnicinc and cultural dynamics of Rwanda, which has two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis . Those considered Tutsis were faced with decades of discriminatory practices and considered traitors to the country for no reason other than their ethnic identity and the history of enmity between the groups. Jacqueline and her family were Tutsi and were targeted during the period of genocide, which began in April 1994. Jacqueline was separated from her family during the “100 days of killing,” and at the end of the turmoil, the nine year old was the only member of her immediate family to survive. 

As a survivor, Jacqueline feels that it is her responsibility to share her story with others to raise awareness about the possible impact that extremism or polarization can have, especially in today’s political climate. 

“I understand the consequences of what can happen when violence and discrimination go unaddressed. People have to realize that diversity is not adversity. See yourself as an agent of change.”

Moses Brown’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Luke Anderson, echoed Jacqueline’s view of why her testimony is so important to share with young people today. 

“Given the recent rise in xenophobia and antisemitic speech in our nation’s political conversation, it’s critical that Moses Brown provide space for stories like Jacqueline’s to be told,” says Luke. “Partnering with the Bornstein Center has helped us make the connections between hate speech and other forms of exclusion and violence explicit for our students. The more that we can help our students understand how they can stand in solidarity with those who might be victimized by violence or discrimination, the more we can empower them to live Moses Brown’s values out in the world.”

Consistent with MB’s academic culture of deep reflection, eighth grade students were asked to contemplate Jacqueline’s story and how engaging with survivor and witness testimony can deepen their learning. 

“When you hear a story from a survivor, you learn not only the facts and events, but you feel the millions of human stories connected to the event,” said student Ada M. “It also made me realize how long 100 days is. When I read about it, I thought 100 days was pretty short, because most wars last much longer. But when Jacqueline shared her story, and I imagined 100 days of living in fear thinking that every day was your last one, it made me realize how much the Rwandans went through.”

Classmate Ryan D. was also impacted by the feeling of connection. “It is easy to think of a genocide as a very distant thing in both time and place, but the more I listened, the more I felt like this genocide was not so distant with a person from Rwanda right in front of us. It gave the story an anchor to the world we live in and helped me really understand how awful such an act can be.” 

And Ben L. was motivated by Jacquline’s journey and efforts to spread the word. “Her presentation inspired me and made me remember those who died in Rwanda; let’s help the rest of the world remember them and learn.” 

Jacqueline’s hope is that by hearing her story, students like Ben will also feel moved to get involved.

“When you hear of people being dehumanized or discriminated against or attacked because of their religion or ethnicity, always remember my story so that you use your own power and raise your voice and actually do something about it. My call to you is: What do you do once you are aware?”