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Roxane B. Salonen, Published August 30 2012

Faith, hope, forgiveness: Rwandan genocide survivor to speak in Grafton

IF YOU GO

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 8

Where: St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1515 Western Ave., Grafton, N.D.

Info: $25 for advanced tickets, or $35 for walk-in. To register, call the parish office at 701-352-1648 or email ticket requests to Bev Dolan at bev.stjohns@midconetwork.com.

Online: www.immaculee.com and www.stjohnsgraftonnd.com

GRAFTON, N.D. - At age 22, Immaculee Ilibagiza went home to Mataba, Rwanda, eagerly anticipating time with her family while on break from college.

But during that 1994 visit, instead of experiencing a relaxed homecoming with her parents and siblings, she found herself running for cover.

The timing had placed her in the middle of one of the most vicious genocides in history, whereby members of her people, the Tutsis, were targeted as “cockroaches,” and brutally murdered in large numbers by a neighboring tribe, the Hutus.

In desperation, Immaculee sought refuge in a back-room bathroom at the house of a family friend – a pastor belonging to the Hutu tribe. Squished together with seven other women, all strangers, she would remain there for three months, haunted by shrieks from the outside and suffering in silence, communicating only through facial expression.

When the women emerged three months later, Immaculee weighed only 65 pounds and was met with the reality that most of her family had been among the more than 1 million people massacred by machete or other horrific means.

Now, nearly 20 years later, she travels to Grafton to share her experience of moving through the deep grief that resulted, as well as how she came to forgive those who’d so ruthlessly killed her family and friends.

‘THERE’S ALWAYS HOPE’

Recently, just before departing for Rwanda to embark on a holy-day pilgrimage with her husband and two children, ages 10 and 11, Immaculee spoke by phone about her life journey and forthcoming visit.

She said she wrote her first book, the national best-selling “Left to Tell,” in large part because she had come to realize that everyone suffers, not just those affected by something as tragic as genocide, and she felt her story could help others.

Upon moving to America in 1998, Immaculee was surprised at the amount of stress she saw on people’s faces here despite material abundance. “I wanted to let them know that things could be worse, and also, the good news that you have much more power than you think,” she said.

When we don’t recognize the blessings around us, she added, we spread our unhappiness to others. “I want to let people know that no matter what happens, there’s always hope.”

Immaculee said she’s been touched by people’s reactions to her stories; accounts from those who’ve moved out of despair after learning how she was able to forgive her family’s killers.

And as a mother, she has a soft spot in her heart for those who’ve traveled that road. In her second book, “Led by Faith,” Immaculee wrote that the painful moments of isolation she experienced as a new mother in a new country felt even less bearable at times than her suffering in Rwanda.

“You come to realize that there is some pain that is hidden; no one knows about it,” she said “And when you don’t have the support of the society – that can hurt even more.”

At least in the bathroom in Rwanda there were others alongside her. But the consolation they were able to offer one another also had its limits. Oftentimes, the slightest sound – something that had fallen in another room – would send a wave of panic through the small space.

But Immaculee had a tool with her then and began to use it to help calm herself, and eventually, the other women. It was a set of her father’s rosary beads. The more she prayed, the calmer she grew. The peace on her face reassured the others.

“Even small things, like a shaking of the hands could do it; we’d all lose it. It was a matter of death and life,” Immaculee said. “When I started to pray, I wanted (the other women) to look at me to see that I was OK. That was my only strength, the assurance coming from prayer.”

Years later, she said, one of the women jokingly asked if the rosary beads had made holes in her fingers; that’s how tightly she’d clung to them.

FOSTERING PEACE AMONG US

These days, Immaculee said, she can’t help but thank God for every second of her life, and she wants others to experience the same deep sense of peace she has come to know.

“I also want to remind people that God will use us when we trust him, but he wants us to get out and help, to take action,” she said. “God comes to us in many different ways. When you see there’s peace, you know he’s there.”

But, she said, we need to be careful not to exclude people from our lives. “My dad used to tell us, ‘Don’t judge people; don’t put them in boxes. If you do, you will miss out on many angels in your life,’” she said.

And that’s the very reason the evangelization committee at St. John the Evangelist Church in Grafton wanted to bring Immaculee here, according to its pastor, the Rev. Timothy Schroeder.

“Immaculee shares a message that we all need to be a bridge, whether it be in our families or other groups,” he said. “We need to look at the finer points of every person and situation and keep tolerance and forgiveness in our hearts if we are going to live a Christ-like life.”

Schroeder said the motivation to bring Immaculee here increased when a group from his parish, after reading her first book, traveled six hours to hear her speak at a retreat in Worthington, Minn., last summer.

He said all who can come are welcomed and encouraged to hear Immaculee speak and that her message is for everyone.

Roxane Salonen is a SheSays contributor.