It’s one thing to read about the Rwandan genocide that led to the slaughter of nearly 1,000,000 innocents during a 100-day civil war in 1994, which pitted Hutu and Tutsi natives against one another — but it’s an entirely different thing to come face-to-face with survivors of the massacre.
Two of those student survivors visited last week with The Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, enthralling the students at the private, all-girls school with tales of not only surviving the brutality, but of the day-to-day ordeals of just reaching school safely.
The two visiting students — Francine Mugeni and Irene Ingabire — are graduates of The Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda — the first all-women’s college in Rwanda — and visited The Agnes Irwin School as part of the ongoing outreach of the Agnes Irwin’s Akilah Club.
“Two of our students traveled to Rwanda two years ago, met with [Akilah co-founder and CEO] Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes and learned a lot about Akilah, and they were so impacted by it that they came back and started a club,” said The Agnes Irwin School Dean of Students Deanna Mayer. “The club’s purpose is to maintain a relationship with Akilah, and learn about the genocide, and to really support what Akilah is trying to do.”
“The Akilah Club at The Agnes Irwin School allows students to gain interest and understanding in women’s education and empowerment, while creating a personal connection with these young women in Rwanda,” Dearborn-Hughes said. “The students at Akilah have forged their own paths and overcome tremendous obstacles while breaking the cycle of poverty for their families, their communities and their country. Our two graduates [were] eager to share their stories, their experiences at Akilah and their professional goals for the future with the students at the Agnes Irwin School.”
And by all accounts, the stories shared by Mugeni and Ingabire provided a moving testament to fortitude and faith. One of the students spoke of losing her entire immediate family to the genocide when she was four, and being raised by a member of her extended family — who was only 14 at the time. Both also shared stories about the hardship of trying to obtain an education when they were surrounded at all times by brutal homicide and a suffocating sense of fear.
“It’s one thing to read about 1,000,000 dying, but to take that [knowledge] and actually sit there watching a survivor of that, it’s no longer just this idea that you’re reading it out of a textbook. It really is a powerful experience for these girls,” Mayer said, noting that she expects the relationship to continue between the two schools. “The other piece is, so often, service and philanthropy is fairly disconnected process — you do a walk, or the check goes in the mail — but we try to make a commitment with our service and make it ongoing, something that isn’t just generic women’s education.
“For our girls, we wanted [programming] that goes deeper,” Mayer continued. “These are young world-changers, and they came and gave to our students.”
Mayer said The Agnes Irwin School students spent the entire day with the two Rwandans, and hopes they came away with a greater appreciation for what they may have taken for granted.
“The emphasis from both these young women was that their education wasn’t so different that what our students were receiving, even though they are from halfway around the world. What is different, and what impacted our girls and gave them a greater appreciation is what these women had to go through just to get to school,” Mayer said. “So they talked about that, and our students walked away with a greater appreciation of what they have and for the value their family has placed on education.
“They emphasized that, once in the system, our two education systems aren’t so different. They want to have futures, families, careers and hope — just like you.”