"Enemies are constructed, [and] enemies can be deconstructed" was the opening message that the students of Sweet Home High School's International Academy heard last Friday from Carl Wilkens, a humanitarian and author of "I'm not leaving."
Wilkens also addressed a gathering of students from Students For Hope later in the day. Wilkens, who currently lives in Spokane, Wash., was the only American to remain in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. His decision to remain in the country and try to help after the genocide began prevented the massacre of hundreds of children. Wilkens spoke about his experiences living in and returning to Rwanda. His presentation was a mix of heartwarming anecdotes and startling facts about a country he called home for several years.
During Wilkens' presentation, students, teachers, administrators and Board of Education members got a look at his former home of Kigali, Rwanda, and met several child survivors of the genocide via video clips, pictures and letters.
The keys to building bridges with people are "stories inspiring service [and] service empowering stories," Wilkens said.
One such example he shared took place while he and his wife, Theresa, and their three children, Mindy, Lisa and Shaun, were living in Kigali. War had been going on for three years, but the capital city of Kigali was relatively untouched. Rumors spread quickly about truckloads of weapons arriving in town. The government had imposed curfews in response to violent demonstrations. Wilkens recalls hearing machine guns firing in his neighborhood. Evacuation was thought to be too dangerous from communication sent by the American Embassy. During the conflict, the Wilkens family had been informed that its home had been targeted by the militia. Neighbors stood at the gate outside Wilkens' home to keep them from storming the home. The neighbors, specifically mothers, aunts and grandmothers, used words, not force, to stop the killers. They told the militia that the Wilkens family had been living there for several years and that their children played together. Neighbors shared stories of small acts of kindness displayed by the Wilkens family. Wilkens credits his neighbors with keeping his family alive that night, armed only with stories.
Hafsah Alagmir, a junior and Students for Hope member, said, "It made my day. ...I just loved how he said that we need to change our ways of thinking."
In a phone interview with Wilkens, he said that "one of the first things you should know about the people of Rwanda before you go is that they are not a culture defined by genocide. In addition to the hospitality and joy they show you, the Rwandans take the time to realize the high value of community. How can the country's highest strengths be used against them? That's a question worth answering."
Wilkens recently returned from a summer trip to Rwanda and shared the changes he observed since the genocide of 1994.
"One of the biggest changes and the most important changes to their Constitution is that a minimum of 30 percent of the major government positions have to be women," he said. "The importance of the healing in rebuilding is women."
Women are less likely to handle conflict with war, Wilkens said.
"One of the reasons I am hopeful is that education is increasing," Wilkens said. "Before the genocide, 1 in every 10 kids went to school. Now, 9 in every 10 kids goes to school. Government spending doesn't happen at the provincial level, but more and more is happening at the district level. The decentralization of the government means that it is more in their hands."
Wilkens travels all over the country speaking at schools. These visits shed light on what happened during the genocide, a topic which most students still understand little about, as well as what is happening today in that region.
Wilkens founded "World Outside My Shoes," a nonprofit educational and professional development organization. According to his corresponding website, Worldoutsidemyshoes.org, Wilkens' goals are to inspire and equip people to stand up against genocide, racism and intolerance. Students are encouraged to learn the stories of immigrants and to question those who mock others rather than simply laugh in response to a put-down.
"There are so many ways that we can minimize and demoralize people, but there are so many tools for us to help people," he said.
Sweet Home's Students for Hope, who sponsored Wilkens' visit, is the largest after-school organization in the school. The group strives to address social injustices around the world.
Teacher and adviser for the group, Scott Aquilino, was very supportive of this event.
"I think it's important for kids who have so much here to understand that a little bit goes a long way to the less fortunate," Aquilino said. "Carl's message is important to listen to and not let it [genocide] happen, or repeat again.
"It's great to have the resources to have Carl speak because it's one thing to read about it in textbooks but it's another thing to hear firsthand accounts," he added.