Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tufts Against Genocide - Remembering Rwanda: Annie Lobel '11

I studied post-conflict development and the aftermath of civil war and genocide during my junior year in Rwanda and Northern Uganda. It was an incredibly eye-opening, transformative and at times difficult experience. I lived with host families while living in both countries. I learned to love cold basin baths, having electricity only sometimes, having very little personal space, learning how to slaughter a chicken ceremoniously, learning how to speak some Kinyarwanda and Acholi, and learning that there really isn't much different between myself and people my age half way across the world. What I took away from my time in East Africa was the power of humankind - the acute awareness of people's strength to do good, but at the same time, their ability to commit evil – as happened in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. This is not an event of distant history. No, it happened during my lifetime. And the repercussions of such a tragedy are still very present. Genocides are frequently spoken about as “unthinkable” events; yet they are “thinkable,” because they have happened and keep happening.

I of course am not Rwandan nor Ugandan myself, but when studying the Rwandan Genocide in Rwanda, although it happened to a certain group of people, I realized that this issue of genocide is far from an issue of one ethnic group. It is an issue relevant to all of us. Whether we are the people being persecuted, the persecutors, or the bystanders, we are responsible. We are responsible to take a stand and to educate ourselves and our peers about the histories of genocides, the ongoing occurrences of genocide, and how to take steps to stop such inexcusable massacres.

There are about 200 different memorials commemorating the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in a country the size of Vermont. Much of my classroom time was spent visiting, studying, and experiencing these memorials. Memorials in Rwanda are unique in that many of them have just been left as they were in 1994 - a huge statement making sure future generations do not dare forget what took place for 100 days killing nearly one million people.

Let me tell you - studying war and genocide in East Africa was really tough for me at times, but also I have never done anything so rewarding. I wish that everyone my age could be exposed to the realities of what humans can do to each other. Once you see it, smell it, respond to it and are no longer able to hold back tears, there is no way you can ignore it.

I remember returning to my Rwandan host family's home after my visit to the memorials, and my host sisters greeting me so warmly. I just wanted to cry. I wanted to ask so many questions but I didn't even know where to begin, what was appropriate, and whether they would want me inquiring or not. My host dad had told me he lost several of his siblings at the high school I had just visited, and now that I had visited I understood much more of what he was talking about. I was and still am amazed by his and his family's strength, love, and inspiration.

Although my host family felt unique to me, truth is they were not unique in that in Rwanda, everyone has been directly affected by the genocide. Everyone I met had lost a brother, mother, cousin, grandparent, or best friend. Nobody escaped the horrors of the genocide.

Let me tell you - returning to Tufts was not easy. It was a bit isolating even. I knew I had changed but my world at home had not changed very much. What I had thought was a "perfect fit" at home no longer fit as perfectly as I remembered. Reverse culture shock returning to the States was way harder than the culture shock when I first left home. When my peers would ask me "how was abroad?" no one sentence answer was ever satisfying to me. There was so much I wanted to communicate to my friends, peers, and family, and the frustration that no one would even begin to understand where I was coming from was frustrating and disheartening. I did realize that the frustration was not productive unless I turned it into something. People were trying to understand, they just needed guidance. Ever since I returned to Tufts I felt this need to take action, to do something about all of this, to educate my peers and help make them want to learn more, and to help other people understand that this should not happen again - we cannot let it happen again.

It was incredible to return to Tufts and eventually find and connect to like-minded students and to put together the Tufts Against Genocide (TAG) Committee with the incredible support of Tufts Hillel and the inspiration of the Cummings Challenge.

TAG's kick-off event was a panel of five survivors of Genocide - we had a survivor from the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust, the Bosnian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, and the son of Armenian survivors - each told his or her story. The purpose and message of our panel was to remind the Tufts community that genocide does not discriminate. It is relevant to all of us. We were hoping that by portraying a range of cultures and ethnicities on stage, listeners would be affected by the visual as well as people's stories. The event was incredibly moving, educational, and inspiring. We had no idea if 30 people would show up - we were delighted when a full auditorium of 250 people filled our audience to hear the firsthand accounts of these inspiring speakers.

After this event, a number of Tufts students have inquired how to get involved in this movement of bringing more genocide education to campus. Since the panel we have had a few other events, such as a Holocaust film screening, discussion, and dinner, as well as a Rwandan Genocide film screening during Genocide Awareness Week. 

We as college students have taken a stand and want to be part of a movement to make sure that now and in the future when people say "never again," that this "never again" will become a reality.

This is the beginning of something way bigger than just a committee of Tufts students. We want to get the whole campus involved. We want to get other campuses involved. We are not asking everyone to go on and work in memorials or attend graduate studies in genocide education. No. What we are asking is that everyone - no matter if they are a student, teacher, athlete, doctor, engineer, philanthropist, or waitress - we want this subject to be on the forefronts of everyone's mind. It is relevant to all of us. And it takes the next generation of leaders to care and to take action against stopping any and all future genocides.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Read by the River: Emma Gaines '11

This year, Tufts Hillel held the 11th annual literacy carnival Read by the River (RBTR).  I have participated in RBTR for all my four years at Tufts, and I’ve been on the executive organizing committee for three out of those four years.  RBTR has always been one of my favorite things about my Tufts experience, including the planning process and the carnival itself.  From late nights spent drawing decorations at Hillel, to the smile on a child’s face when I hear my 5th consecutive book report on Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I love everything about RBTR!

I’ve always been involved with doing community service with children, and in high school I even worked on some literacy oriented projects.  At Tufts, one of my majors is Child Development.  I think that RBTR is a perfect community service opportunity for me to contribute to the community in the ways that I most want to and am most qualified to.  Although it is easy to get caught up in painting murals or ordering the popcorn for the carnival, when it comes down to it, RBTR is all about the kids. 

For this reason, we are always thinking about ways to make RBTR better for the kids.  We’ve made a lot of improvements just during my time at Tufts – extending our literacy community service initiative beyond just the day of the carnival to a full year commitment and expanding to Somerville, for example.  There have also been little changes that go a long way for the kids – for the first time this year, before the day of the carnival, children drew a picture from their favorite book and wrote about why they loved reading, and we hung these up at the day of the carnival for everyone to see. 

This year we thought of another new improvement for RBTR, which was a parent’s booth.  Thanks to Lauren Estes’ dual leadership, this idea was the brainchild of both the RBTR board and the Hillel organization Vitality, which works to promote health and wellness on Tufts campus.  The idea became a reality, and the booth provided educational information to parents both on literacy and health related issues, and also gave out goody bags with health related products such as toothbrushes and hand sanitizer. 

I think the parent’s booth is a sign that in little ways, RBTR can always change and find more ways to best serve the children who loyally come year after year and have a wonderful day at the carnival.