When the last plane left Rwanda in 1994, Carl Wilkens stayed behind.
He was the last American in the capital, Kigali, when Hutu extremists began murdering Tutsis in what was to be 100 days of genocidal terror. As many as one million people, or seven of every ten Tutsis, were killed.
Mr. Wilkens headed the Rwanda office of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Last week, he spoke to the seventh and eighth graders of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.
He had been introduced to Beryl Bresgi, the school’s head librarian and director of Holocaust studies, by Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, on a trip to Rwanda last spring.
(On Tuesday, Dr. Smith will speak at the school’s dedication of its new Holocaust resource center.)
Ms. Bresgi said that an important part of the school’s Holocaust curriculum is teaching the distinction between “bystanders” – who stood by and did nothing – and “upstanders,” who stood up for what is right. Mr. Wilken’s role as an “upstander” is part of the curriculum.
Mr. Wilkens said he and his wife, Theresa, began working in Africa right after they finished college and got married. In Zimbabwe, he was a high school shop teacher. After a few years, he earned an MBA degree. After six months of language lessons in Paris, they went to Rwanda. “We were building schools and operating clinics in Rwanda for four years before the genocide,” he said.
When the crisis came, the embassies evacuated all the Americans and Europeans. His wife took their children to Kenya. He stayed behind, along with 10 Europeans. “We tried to help during that time. I was bringing food and water to groups of orphans around the city. I had a couple of Rwandans in my home. Both had Tutsi ID cards.
“Everything was turned upside down. There was a 24/7 curfew the first three weeks. Nobody was coming to help. This was continuing on while thousands of people are being killed every day.
“Initially, you hunker down and protect the people with you. As it drags on, you have to do something else. That’s when I met the mayor of the city and started to form a relationship with him. He gave me a travel document and pointed me toward an orphanage.
“We had been partners and worked with the government. Now you have mortars flying over your head and innocent families being killed. For me and my Rwandan colleagues, it boiled down to providing basic necessities for one orphanage with 400 kids and one with 200 kids and a little one down the street with about 30. I’m buying stolen powdered milk from thieves. Little kids are helping me clean barrels while snipers are shooting at us.”.
“If only more people had stayed,” Ms. Bresgi recalled him saying, “we would have been able to save more people.”
“In the places where he was, killers did not go,” she said. “Just by being a white face there and then he saved lives.”
A few years ago, Mr. Wilkens and his wife formed an organization, “The World Outside My Shoes,” to enable them to tell their story to students and inspire people to “enter the world of the Other.”
“It’s one thing to read about it or watch a film,” he said. “When you get to talk to somebody who was in the middle of this, it brings a deeper level of humanity. Initially the window is the story of the Rwandan genocide. We’re looking to talk with students about deeper issues of identity, addressing identity-based violence, whether individual or group. We’re hoping to give students the tools that they could use both locally and internationally.
“We are always encouraging students to learn the story. It’s about stories inspiring service and service empowering stories. If you don’t know what to do, you often don’t know enough of the story. You have to build partnerships with people in the middle of the story to find a solution.
“We’ve been really impressed by the positive response of young people to this story,” Mr. Wilkins continued. “They see the relevance. A lot of our audience was born after the time of the genocide. They still see the relevance, they have a desire to make a difference.”
That is true not only in the United States, he said. “We’ve spoken with students in China and the United Arab Emirages and just a few weeks ago in Poland. They can’t believe this happened in Rwanda, that the international community failed at such a massive scale. The desire to do something about it is really inspiring for us.”
As Schechter teaches about the Holocaust, “We don’t want our students’ identity as Jews tied into victimhood,” Ms. Bresgi said. “We want them to focus on the rich Jewish life that existed, the rich culture, the rich language.” Mr. Wilkens teaches that lesson about Rwanda, she said. “When we think of Rwanda we think of genocide. They’re trying to get away from that.”
“The story of Rwanda’s loss and recovery is so much more about what we do with what we have than what we can’t do with what was taken away from us,” Mr. Wilkins said. “So many times after a tragedy, you feel like we don’t have this, we don’t that that. Life is dominated by what was taken away.”
In truth, he said, “it’s what we do with what remains” that matters. He quoted something a high school student had told him, describing what he had learned about Rwanda:
“I learned that it is what you do next that defines you.
“It’s that sense that it’s accepting what happened, the realities, the horrors, and then saying what now? It will definitely impact our future, but it’s not going to define our future,” he said.