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Second Generation: Educating the Children of Genocide
Nineteen years ago this month, Rwandans experienced genocide at the hands of Hutu extremists who sought to destroy the entire Tutsi ethnic population in the country, along with Hutu moderates who refused to support an agenda of extermination. The slaughter was incredibly efficient, as more than 800,000 individuals were murdered over roughly 100 days by their machete-wielding neighbors while the United Nations and the rest of the world looked on. For Rwanda, it seemed, the promise of “never again” did not apply.
While it is impossible to compare the suffering of individuals targeted for death because of their identity, the horrors that unfolded in Rwanda in 1994 are reminiscent of the horrific and calculated destruction associated with the Holocaust in 1940s Europe. In both instances, specific groups of individuals were singled out in a systematic and premeditated manner, resulting in catastrophic death tolls and leaving behind countless survivors who have endured assaults on both their dignity and their humanity. It is this parallel survivorship that has begun to resonate with victims of both genocides, and it is a relationship that has developed and continued to grow into the second generation of survivors and victims.
On April 4, this shared experience manifested itself in an event that joined the remembrance of the Holocaust with the commemoration of the 19th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The panel discussion, which took place at the Museum of Tolerance in New York, was titled “Educational Challenges for the Second Generation and Beyond,” and featured five different speakers. As the title of the discussion indicates, the focus of the evening was on education and the imperative role it plays in helping the descendants of genocide victims and survivors understand the impact of their families’ suffering on their own lives. In this way, education can also be a tool for prevention, as it is centered on the belief that past hostilities and injustices can be overcome. As moderator Dr. Yael Danieli of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children stated in her opening remarks, the goal is to “try to prevent the transformation [of trauma] from generation to generation.”
The first panelist of the evening was Sue Lob, founder and executive director of the Voices of Women Organizing Project, whose father survived a year of internment at Mauthausen, and whose mother lived in hiding to escape the Nazi purge. Lob summarized the impact of the Holocaust on her family by referring to it as a “legacy of both trauma and resilience,” noting that her parents rarely discussed their experiences, indicating the lasting effects of what they had been made to endure. From a resiliency perspective, however, Lob affirmed that “what survivors bring to us is this real legacy of their ability to adapt,” along with a powerful sense of tenacity and stubborn will. Explaining that this was the first time she had chosen to speak about her family’s story in public, Lob concluded by offering her reasoning for finally doing so: “I didn’t want to stand by the way the world [had] stood by.”
Lob was followed by the organizer of the evening’s discussion, Eugenie Mukeshimana, a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and founder and executive director of the Genocide Survivors Support Network (GSSN). She began by stating that “it sounds very strange, but we remember [the genocide] as if it was yesterday,” referencing the unspoken issues that haunt survivors as constituting a “world they live in that is inside, not known.” In particular, Mukeshimana noted how children, impoverished and oftentimes orphaned after the genocide, were faced with these adult issues, but lacked access to resources like counseling that could have assisted them. While interventions have historically focused on the first generation – that is, adults and teenagers who were alive during the genocide and directly experienced its horrors – “the second generation is turning nineteen,” and such intervention initiatives cannot be sustained unless this second generation is taken into account. Specifically, Mukeshimana mentioned that many children attend school with the children of those who murdered their parents, which provides a platform for potential problems both now and in the future. As she aptly noted, “it takes much longer to get rid of the ideology that created [the genocide] in the first place,” and concluded by stating that “we need to begin looking at the way we can support education” in Rwanda.
Ed Ballen, a clinical social worker and the founder and executive director of the Rwanda Education Assistance Program (REAP), spoke after Mukeshimana. After visiting an orphanage in Rwanda in 2006, he stated that he felt a particular connection to the place, and in 2008 started the nonprofit REAP by opening a public school where children from that orphanage could attend classes. Expressing his adherence to the notion that “education is a fundamental human right for all children,” Ballen explained that REAP’s mission is to enrich the environment to learn for these kids. This is accomplished through a five-pillar approach, comprising community, engagement, education outside the classroom, health and well-being, and the environment. Ballen also noted a few challenges that the REAP faces, such as a lack of clean drinking water for students, and the fact that most pupils have a long walk to and from the school each day. Teaching also poses problems, as a teacher in primary school only has a high school education, and is often devalued in society for having chosen that career path. Yet Ballen is hopeful, saying that “when I feel overwhelmed, what keeps me going is holding on to the face of the children of Rwanda. I can see the hope.” He concluded by echoing this sentiment in a paraphrase of Levinas, saying that “our ethical behavior begins with the human face” of the Other.
After Ballen was Barrett Frankel, the development and communications manager of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), another education-based organization that serves Rwandan youth. Specifically, ASYV offers 500 Rwandan youth a holistic living, learning, and healing community, which they are a part of for four years. The mission of the organization is to help students realize their maximum potential, as well as to cultivate a sense of social responsibility, so that each student might become an “educator and an investor in the generation.” The main axioms of ASYV are the focus provided on the individual student, formal and informal education, health and wellness, and education on other genocides, such as what occurred in the Holocaust and Bosnia. In addition, Frankel talked about how instead of punishing students for misbehavior, ASYV has developed a “DNA” approach, which stands for discussion, negotiation, and agreement. As she explained, “life is about repair,” and the most important lesson one can learn from the incident is to understand the consequences of an individual’s actions on the whole community. In this spirit, Frankel also emphasized giving kids a voice, and instilling in them “the power to think for themselves, well beyond their four years” at ASYV.
The last panelist, Dr. Racelle Weiman, is the director of Global Education and Professional Training for the Dialogue Institute at Temple University. She also serves on the GSSN board, and underlined the importance of empowerment – that is, “how to help people help themselves.” In particular, Weiman promoted the ownership of Rwandans and all survivors of genocide in finding their voice and sharing their story, and that in doing so they should be cognizant of their audience. In other words, she asked, “What is the story that you want them to tell?” and repeatedly emphasized, “You are your own voice.”
Perhaps a few words from Dr. Danieli best capture how important education can be for survivors and the prevention of repeated trauma. As she states, education “must be embraced and contained within a healing environment” – “you don’t want successful people who can’t manage their heart.” Thus, the greatest opportunity education might provide is the chance to envision life differently, in harmony with one’s community, and in recognition of one’s individual agency to write a future that is different from the past, so as to ensure that “never again” means what it was always intended to.
Photo: Eugenie Mukeshimana