Notre Dame Middle School students learn about forgiveness, mercy

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | April 26, 2017

Immaculée Ilibagiza, Rwanda genocide survivor, shares her story with students

DE PERE — When Immaculée Ilibagiza entered the Notre Dame Middle School Gym on April 13, the eighth grade students, seated in the bleachers, paused for a moment before breaking out in applause. They had recently read the book, “Left to Tell,” Ilibagiza’s personal story of survival, faith and forgiveness during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, her homeland. The woman who hid in a small bathroom for 91 days with seven others to escape being killed by Hutu tribe members was now standing before them.

Ilibagiza began by answering students’ questions. The inquiries ranged from her favorite foods to her definition of love.

Immaculée Ilibagiza holds a framed, autographed photo of the Notre Dame Middle School students presented to her during a visit to the De Pere school on April 13. (Jeff Kurowski | The Compass)

“Being kind to somebody; paying attention when somebody is talking to you; caring about people; that’s love,” she said.

A number of questions focused on her thoughts and emotions during the genocide. Her entire family, with the exception of one brother, was murdered.

“I had a lot of transformation,” she said. “These were my neighbors. How can they do this to me? I was confused. How can somebody do this evil? There was confusion, hurt and anger.”

Ilibagiza explained that the genocide taught her that any day can be your last, so recognizing God’s love and passing on that love to others is what is important in life.

Praying the rosary provided some comfort in her three months of hiding and guided her in offering forgiveness.

“It was hard to forgive,” said Ilibagiza, a member of the Tutsi tribe. “It was hard to understand forgiveness. I wanted to forgive, but how? I prayed the rosary. I found strength.

“I do talk to people from the other tribe,” she added. “One of my best friends is from the other tribe, Hutu. Tribes don’t matter as long as the heart is in the right place. I have met other Hutus who have killed people in my family. We have talked. They are so sorry for what they did. It’s about the heart.”

Following the question and answer session, Ilibagiza spoke to an extended student audience. Her talk included messages about the presence of God, the power of prayer and hope.

“In some ways, I enjoyed my anger; I enjoyed my unforgiveness,” she said about her time in hiding. “I begged God for help. I put God ahead as my Lord. That’s what we needed to do. There is always hope. Be strong in your faith, it’s all you’ve got.”

Teacher Katie Summers said that she was a bit nervous about introducing “Left to Tell” to the eighth grade students.

“I had to send home a permission slip because it’s heavy content,” she said. “I didn’t know how the kids would take it. They loved it.”

She read the book last summer following a conversation with Amy Polasky, a Notre Dame parent and close friend of Ilibagiza.

“I read it in a day; I couldn’t stop,” said Summers. “We read it (as a class) two months ago. I contacted Amy to see if there was any way that (Ilibagiza) could talk to the kids. She made it happen.”

Class discussions leading to the visit by their special guest speaker were powerful, added Summers.

“A lot of them had no idea that these sorts of things happened,” she said. “We spent a lot of time learning about the history of Rwanda.”

Summers believes that Ilibagiza’s visit and story will have a lasting effect on the students.

“How did they not move the wardrobe (in front of the bathroom door)? They went through suitcases and everything else. It’s something we talked about. It’s about faith,” said Summers.

Three weeks earlier, Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga of Rwanda visited the school to talk about forgiveness. Fr. Rugirangoga, who has celebrated several healing Masses at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, has not only met the man who killed his mother, but now visits him in prison.

Summers also connected with a school in Ghana last year in an effort to provide a world view for the students. What began as a sixth grade pen pal project with Springforth International has grown into a sister school relationship. Notre Dame is raising money to purchase a bus for the school in Ghana.

“They love getting letters (from Ghana),” said Summers. “Their lives are so similar in that they are the same age and going through the same experiences, but the culture is so different than here.”

The Notre Dame eighth grade students presented Ilibagiza with a class picture enclosed in a signed frame. She plans to bring the gift to a school in Rwanda. Her charitable work in her home country has included building schools and a scholarship program. She also takes people from the U.S. on visits to Rwanda.

“They hear my story and ask about the country,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Come with me.’ They see the school and say that it is too bad they don’t have chairs to sit in; they don’t have books. Many great people from this beautiful country will come and do something to help.”

Ilibagiza said that it was a privilege to be back in the Diocese of Green Bay and to speak at Notre Dame. She spent the morning at the Shrine in Champion.

“I love it,” she said. “You have a treasure there.”

More than 2 million copies of “Left to Tell,” released in 2006, have sold. Ilibagiza is currently working on two new books. She has written seven to date.

“I’m working on a book about forgiveness, the stories I have heard when travelling,” she explained. “Another one I’m working on is about my Dad. He was such a strong model of faith in my family. I am here because of him.”

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