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Catholic Voice
CURRENT ISSUE:  October 17, 2011
VOL. 49, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Parish training to aid those who grieve
Aid groups honored for social work
Survivor’s story draws attention

Bishop O’Dowd students posed with Immaculée Ilibagiza after the survivor of the Rwandan genocide and author of “Left to Tell” spoke on campus.
josé luis aguirre photo
josé luis aguirre photo

Rowandan message: “Listen to Our Lady.”

Before she spoke with the students at Bishop O’Dowd High School on Sept. 28, Immaculée Ilibagiza spent a few minutes answering a few questions for The Catholic Voice. This is an edited version of that conversation.

What does it mean to tell your story to young people? And how do young people receive your story?

So much more than anyone. Their hearts are so innocent; their souls are without malice. When they hear truth, they want to do it. . . . They’re so impressionable.

When they hear something that touches them, that hits home, they take it the way it is. I am so grateful they connect to my story. I have so many letters from schools; each student sends me a letter, ‘I am sorry for what you went through. Now I know there is God.’ Kids are sharing their stories: They were abused. They thought their lives were over. Through me, they can be themselves. They are so sweet. They say: I want to say the rosary. To talk to guys who play basketball at school, who come to hear my story: Really? The rosary is so important? When you can convince them, it hits home, they really want to do it. They say: Convince me. Tell me it did something to you.

A nearby school built a structure, the size of your hiding place in Rwanda, and it has become a place of prayer for the girls. Have you heard of others doing this?

I have heard it in many different places. The first time I went back to Rwanda with a group of people, all they wanted to do was go and see the bathroom. One lady wanted to say the whole rosary, 15-20 minutes. She said: Everything will be fine for me now.

Or they make a square the size it was. That touches me. I really want to encourage the kids: Anywhere a sign leads you to God, do it. Anywhere, a sign can lead you to God.

It’s not me they’re thinking about; they’re thinking about God, who saved someone. That makes me very happy. They offer their future, their prayers. And that makes you very happy.

Tell us about your latest project.

There is a new book, coming Nov. 28, “The Boy Who Met Jesus: Segatashya of Kibeho.” This is the story of a boy who was 15 years old — he was a pagan — and the interaction he had with Jesus: “You tell me I should love you more, and I just met you. My parents have known me all my life, how does that work?”

“I gave them to you as a protector.” Jesus said.

And: “Why did you create man with weakness?”

“Man will always be with weakness but he is strong and can do all with his will.”

Nov. 28 is the 30th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady in Rwanda, and the 10th anniversary of when the Vatican approved it. The first time she appeared was Nov. 28, 1981. We are planning to send a message on that day. I will be at St. Patrick in New York, I am hoping we can have a feast and pray.

Remember, Our Lady wants us to hear her message and raise awareness. She prepared us. She tried to prevent this (genocide in Rwanda). She told us if we had done what she wanted us to do, this wouldn’t have happened. If only we had listened.

— Michele Jurich

It’s a fairly safe bet that not many in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s audience will be faced with what she was faced with in Rwanda in 1994.

Her devout Catholic father placed his rosary beads around the neck of the 24-year-old university student and sent her to the home of a minister miles away from her own as killers were closing in on members of her tribe. Ilibagiza lived hidden in a home for 91 days with seven other women. Often, they would cram into a two foot by three foot bathroom to escape capture. Outside, the women could hear people searching for them. A killer entered the home in which she was hiding and called her name.

And still she survived.

Not just survived, but forgave the people who killed her family. That’s the story she was “Left to Tell,” as her first book is titled.

She shares her message of faith and forgiveness in books, retreats and talks across the country and around the world. She will be speaking at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga on Nov. 1.

On Sept. 27, she spoke to more than 600 parents and other friends of Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. The next day, the more than 1,100 students filled the large gymnasium. The entire student body read her book as part of the One Book, One Community program.

But before she spoke, she was greeted by the French Club. Clutching fresh-picked garden roses, they were there to speak French, to let her know she inspired them, and to give her an IOU for a French Club T-shirt that had not yet arrived.

Front and center in the O’Dowd gym were Carden and Marian Smith. Four summers ago, they had taken four grandsons — three of them O’Dowd students, Jonathan and Andrew Richardson and Chris Seelig, with a summer reading assignment — to Medjugorje, the shrine in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the Virgin Mary appeared in 1981.

“Faith & Forgiveness: Surviving the Rwandan Genocide,” A talk by Immaculée Ilibagiza

When: Nov. 1, 7-9 p.m.

Where: Soda Activity Center, Saint Mary’s College of California, 1928 St. Mary’s Road, Moraga

Cost: Free, but RSVP required.

RSVP: wwws.stmarys-ca.edu/

Students at Carondelet High School in Concord gather in an exact-sized structure on the school’s quad replicating the bathroom where Immaculée Ilibagiza hid with seven other women during the Rwandan genocide.
As one of the grandsons was reading his book, a woman walked over and said to him, “Hey, that’s my book,” Carden Smith said.

And that’s how the young men were introduced to Immaculée Ilibagiza.

The boys spent time with Ilibagiza, and invited her to visit their school, which had been trying to schedule a speaking engagement. Her talk in 2007 motivated students to produce a play based on her story, and to dedicate their mission fundraising that year to assist people in Sudan, which was facing its own crisis that year. This year, students will also raise funds for human rights.

And four years later, a new crop of O’Dowd students read the book as part of the One Book, One Community program.

The O’Dowd students are not alone. At Carondelet High School in Concord, everyone, from incoming freshman to board member, read the book before school began this year, said president Sister Kathleen Lang.

A friend of the school constructed a shed, two feet by three feet, on the school’s quad to duplicate the size of the bathroom in which Ilibagiza hid. Students visit the small space as they pass by during the school day, often taking time to pray, alone or in small groups, Lang said.

For librarian Joan Tracy, the book’s impact on campus is not surprising. “It’s an amazing book,” she said.

Even as the committee of teachers was meeting to select the year’s book — the third in Carondelet’s One Book, One Community — she could sense the interest among committee members. “Once you see, as a librarian, such interest,” she said. “I could already recognize: This is the book to go with.”

Students are leading discussions of the book on campus, and some departments, such as history and modern languages, are incorporating it into classroom activities. An African dance demonstration, planned for later in the school year, also grows out of interest generated from the book.

“Her story is amazing,” Tracy said. “I think it’s going to enter the literature as one of those books.”

Ilibagiza said she knows teens may never know the terror she faced, but struggle with issues that can become overwhelming in their lives. Ilibagiza told her audience at O’Dowd, “I want a promise in your heart. Hold onto God. Remember there is always hope.”

After the talk, students stood 10 deep at a table, hoping to get her to autograph their books before she left for the airport.

“She was very detailed,” said Olivia Waters, a freshman who said the book she clutched had been her first assignment for high school. “I want her to sign it.”

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