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UT Students Hope Rwanda Activist Inspires Action

Published: April 06, 2010
Members of UT STAND and Amnesty International are trying to be erasers of genocide.

They are promoting a national petition asking President Barack Obama to be the voice for the voiceless, said Colleen Itani ’12, an international and cultural studies major who is president of UT STAND, a student anti-genocide coalition.

As one way to do that, they are hosting Carl Wilkens, former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda, who was the only American who chose to remain in the country after the genocide began in 1994. He now travels the U.S. talking about his experiences through his organization, World Outside My Shoes . Wilkens will speak April 7 at 8 p.m. in Riverside 111.

“We need to learn from the holocaust in order to change our future,” Itani said. She is hoping to harness the passion a speaker like Wilkens can stir in people. “We want to encourage them to act on those feelings to make a change.”

Itani said members of her organization and Amnesty International will be handing out Erase Genocide petitions for those interested to sign and encouraging them to call 1-800-GENOCIDE to voice their concerns to politicians.

“There are a lot of students here who are interested in and inspired by people like Wilkens,” said Gwen Teutsch, president of Amnesty International, which formed this semester. “We can always learn from the past. You just need that one person to spark inspiration.”

Members of UT STAND heard Wilkens speak at the national Pledge2Protect conference in November in Washington, D.C. and were moved by his experience preventing the massacre of hundreds of children. He said he hopes those who attend the presentation Wednesday will leave with a few tools and some inspiration to serve, which he said is the most effective way to break down barriers and build bridges.

"I hope they will leave not so much with a sense of responsibility as a sense of our ability to respond," Wilkens said. "I hope they will leave with a sense of the power of presence, the power of standing up against wrong even when you are not sure what you will do next, but you are sure of one thing, 'I will not sit passive in the face of wrong.'" 

"Probably the biggest thing I hope for is for them to give thought to how each one of us can play a part in re-humanizing our world by re-humanizing, simultaneously, the people closest to us and families an ocean away," Wilkens said.

Wilkens was featured in Frontline’s "Ghosts of Rwanda" and in an American Radio Works documentary, "The Few Who Stayed: Defying Genocide," which aired on National Public Radio.

“His story is inspiring,” said Gina Moccio ’11, UT STAND’s events coordinator, who attended the November conference. Moccio hopes students will take the stories of Rwanda and their hope for change and apply it to the current genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“It’s good to hear first-hand experience,” said Emily Lucero ’13, a member of UT STAND and co-founder of Amnesty International. “Everyone reads about these events in textbooks. When you hear it first-hand, it’s intense and eye-opening.”

Amnesty International, which started this semester, meets Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in Lecture Hall B. UT STAND meets Mondays at 3:30 p.m. in Plant Hall 353 or in Plant Park, weather permitting. The two organizations will merge in the fall, meeting on Fridays at 2 p.m. For information, contact Itani at or Teutsch at .

Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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