Freshman English students learn that crimes of hatred can be fought with acts of love
- Rebecca Mayer
- Lake Oswego Review - News
Hatred, inronically, knows no prejudice. It is a condition that has manifested itself in all kinds of people in all kinds of places. It takes many forms from personal biases to the ugly tragedy called genocide.
It is that type of hatred that Lake Oswego High School freshmen are weighing in their minds this semester as they read the novel 'Night' by Elie Wiesel and hear the firsthand accounts of genocide from the locals who lived through them.
Though the power of hatred is a reality teachers hope the students begin to grasp, it is the power of love in action that they hope is the main message. 'When I read (Night) in school, it made me feel very helpless,' said English teacher Beth Elliot.
In situations like the Holocaust or Rwanda, there is a victim; there is an oppressor; and there is a bystander, said Elliot. 'We want students to examine their own role in taking the responsibility for their actions and the world around them,' she said. 'Even as small individuals, they can have their voice heard.'
Last week, five freshman English classes heard from survivors of the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide.
From the source
Wearing bright red Converse and holding his guitar, 23-year-old Enric Nshimiyumuremyi, relayed his story to Julie Davis' English class last Thursday. 'Enric is closer to the kids' age, so he connected a bit,' she said.
Enric, now a sophomore at Westside Christian High School, lost his father during Rwanda's first of 100 days of killings that began April 6, 1994. Hutu extremists, who were opposed to sharing power with the Tutsis, unleashed a brutal mass murdering of Tutsis that killed nearly one million people in a few months.
In all the chaos and fear, Enric, who was 6 years old, fled the city with his 4-year-old brother. They were separated from their mother and baby sister, and spent three months in the wilderness. When the violence subsided, Enric and his brother ventured out of hiding and eventually came upon a Red Cross station, where they found their mother and sister.
Enric's family, a middle class Rwandan family with a ranch and car, intended to return home, but instead a local official had taken up residence in their house. So Enric and his family built a small hut where they lived for a few years while his mother went through the legal hoops to get the house back.
The day she got the right papers, she was beaten up by the official and died within two weeks from the injuries sustained from the beating.
'When my mom died, I thought my life was done,' said Enric. 'I thought there was no love that existed in the world.'
Enric's brother and sister were taken in by an aunt, but she didn't have room for Enric so he went to live with a neighbor. It didn't last too long, though because he couldn't stand the idea of living in the same neighborhood of the guy who killed his mother. So, at the age of 9, he became a street kid.
One thing that reminded Enric of his mother was music. So he'd sing songs she had written and began attending clubs at the age of 11. However, he often got beaten up because he didn't have enough money to get in.
Then he figured out that the church had free music.
'I kept going to church and people took me into their homes and I became like a kid again,' said Enric.
After that he started singing in the church choir and writing his own songs. 'I wanted to be a world-known musician,' he said.
In 2002, an American woman encouraged Enric to go back to school. At the time he didn't speak English or French. It took him about a month to realize that if he wanted to reach his goals he should go back to school. At age 15, he went back to fifth grade.
Then in 2004, he participated in a music competition that took him all the way to the top of his country. He wrote a song about AIDS with only three chords. 'This was just one and a half years since I was on the street,' he said.
In 2006, he did his first tour of the U.S. with Africa New Life Ministries. During that time he did an independent studies curriculum through the University of Nebraska. Last year, he decided that he needed to be in a regular classroom, so he applied for a scholarship at Westside Christian. He moved here last fall and lives with a family in Sherwood.
'Now I still have a dream to be a world wide singer,' he said.
More lessons from the past
A presentation by Chan Noun, a survivor from Cambodian's genocide by the Khmer Rogue, followed Enric's speech. Today Noun lives in Aloha and donates his time to speak with the traveling Camp Darfur exhibit.
Noun was born in 1960 when times were good. He and his siblings all went to school and his family had enough to eat. Then the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia and Civil War broke out between the Communist Khmer Rogue and the U.S.-backed Cambodian government.
When Noun was 12, his town was attacked, and by 1975 the people were sick of war and leaned in favor of the Khmer Rogue.
During the change of power, 'The Khmer Rogue announced that we need to get out of the city, so they could rearrange the city,' said Noun. 'On the fourth day they came with guns and forced you out. We didn't know they were lying.'
They told people who had government jobs or jobs in the city to sign up for jobs in the new government. Everyone who signed up was asked to stay in the city.
'We got three or four miles away and heard gunfire,' said Noun. Of those killed that day, five were cousins of Noun's.
They walked for about 50 miles, moving from village to village. Eventually, they ran out of food. They were allowed to settle into a new village, but the farmers weren't allowed to share food with the new residents.
'Remember: This is the same ethnic group,' said Noun. 'But they had hate for the people in the government or people who were well educated in the city, so they tried to turn the clock back.'
Noun and his family were soon on the brink of starvation. They couldn't sleep because they were so hungry.They ate anything. They got dysentery from what they ate. 'All you wanted to do was put something in your stomach,' said Noun. 'You would do anything to get something to eat. There is no human connection anymore. Everyone hides food from each other. You're not really you anymore. When it was all over, we looked at each other and never really talked about it.'
Soon everyone with a sixth grade education or higher was at risk for being the next casualty. 'That would mean any of you,' said Noun to the freshman.
'It was a systematic killing,' he added. 'Instead of letting you die, they make you work first.'
In 1979, the Vietnam invaded to fight the Khmer Rogue, and Cambodia was put under Vietnam rule for a decade. During those four years, nearly 2.5 million people died.
Noun came to the U.S. in 1988, got his GED, went to community college and eventually earned his bachelor's degree.
The action project
While the speakers were meant to add a connection to the modern world, teachers Julie Davis and Beth Elliot were hoping for more than that. So they added an action project.
The students have a menu of different options of things they can do to volunteer. They can help at the Blanchet House in Portland or the Western Farm Workers Association or submit an entry to the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center's Sala Kryszek Writing and Art Competition or even write a letter to Congress about present-day genocides such as Darfur.
'The purpose is to bring that feeling of empowerment rather than a Holocaust unit where we all feel sad at the end,' said Elliot.
Parent volunteer Launa Jeffery was one of many Laker Club members who helped organize the speakers. 'This is my passion,' she said. 'Academically, (LOHS) is a really strong school. But it's really important to our family that the other part of humanity - compassion - is taught. I'm so thankful that the teachers in the English department have the same hope for the students.'
Noun did his own part to encourage the students to do more than just listen to the stories.
'What happened to me is gone. It's history,' he said. 'After the Holocaust the world said, 'Never again.' But genocide is still happening… obviously we didn't do anything.
'Americans have power,' he added. 'But our government won't do anything until we put on pressure.'
Genocides do have an impact on the rest of the world, he said. Every time there is a conflict of that magnitude, it creates refugees. 'We have trauma,' he said. 'You have to deal with me.'
On one hand there are refugees' expectations of the U.S. that are not always met, and on the other there is sometimes a mistrust of differences, he said.
He encouraged the students to get to know refugees and their stories in order to make steps toward understanding.