SMU Dispute Resolution students and guests share insights from Rwanda experience

SMU Dispute Resolution faculty, students and guests, in collaboration with ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries), recently traveled to Rwanda to deliver peacebuilding and peer mediation training. After returning to Texas, the group shares their individual experiences with the Rwandan people and insights on what we could all learn about peace.

SMU Group, in collaboration with ALARM, (Left to Right): Elizabeth Blake, Ben Voth, Chris Snyder, Betty Gilmore, Husain Abdullah, Sarah Davenport, Samreen Hooda, Ashley Aguilar, Lori Anne Shaw

Dr. Betty Gilmore, SMU Dispute Resolution Program Director
“I believe that we learned more from the Rwandan people than they learned from us. Despite unthinkable adversity, there are many areas in which the country is thriving. The entire nation has committed to sustainable peace.

What touched me most was the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of people who have caused such harm to each other to come together to rebuild a nation. I hope that we can all learn from the gift they have given us with their example. If a country learning to forgive under such extreme conditions can heal, why can’t we? We must put aside our differences, look for the things that unite us, and realize that we are better together.”

To read more about Dr. Gilmore’s experience, visit: 

Ashley Aguilar, MA Dispute Resolution, Class of 2017
“I have never witnessed selflessness like I did in Rwanda. This quality was exhibited by everyone I encountered. Every person was more concerned about the well being of those surrounding them, than that of themselves. I’ve seen people with this quality before, but never have a seen this in everyone surrounding me on such a large scale. The Rwandan people have shown me what it truly means to live selflessly. We could use selflessness to build peace here. If we could teach more people the benefits of perspective taking and vulnerability and shift the paradigm, then I think selfless acts and decisions could follow. Imagine living each day for something more than just yourself. I felt blessed to be a part of it.”

Elizabeth Blake, MA Dispute Resolution, Class of 2017
“The Forgiveness Villages in Rwanda in which victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide live and work together were by far the most bold and courageous systems of peace and reconciliation implemented in country. Our group was able to visit one of the Forgiveness Villages in Nyamata, Rwanda to hear testimony from victims and perpetrators. They use civil discourse processes as a means speak their truth, share their personal narratives, hear testimony of victims AND perpetrators, and work toward peaceful resolution, and ultimately forgiveness and repentance.

Americans generally do not participate in civil discourse as a means to understand other perspectives, and American media tends to promote political and social polarization. Hatred and division have become the norm in American culture. Civil discourse involves great courage, compassion, and desire to understand the other person. Rwandans have mandated conflict resolution curriculum in schools as a means to teach children from a young age how to listen for understanding, show compassion for the other, and resolve conflict in their families and communities. Imagine the compassion, tolerance, and cohesion the next generation of Americans would have if we started teaching them conflict resolution when they first start school. Imagine the possibilities!”

Sarah Davenport, MA Dispute Resolution, Class of 2017
“The people of Rwanda have much to teach the world. I learned a great deal about love, humanity, and peace in the six days I spent among them living and learning their way of life. When you look up the definition of peace, it says “freedom from disturbance”. We often think of peace here as forgiving and forgetting, or in picking a side and sticking to it while not engaging with the other side in efforts to keep the peace, thus being free of any disturbance. But we’ve got it backwards. The Rwandan people build peace in how they showcase peace at a depth that goes beyond surface level efforts. They first find peace within themselves, through seeking God and seeking understanding, which allows their ability to forgive and still live together in unity. That level of peace propels them to seek out understanding and truth between sides that humanizes actions and centralizes efforts of change. The road and commitment to this is hard but as we spent days with the precious Rwandan people we witnessed the worthy effects of such perseverance and resiliency. The sacred circle of both survivors and authors speaking their truth and living in unity. The beautiful children playing together in one accord. The brave memorial tour guides sharing the stories and realities of the genocide because they believe that giving a voice to truth is just as important as forgiving the past and embracing the hope of the future. It is in the acts of humility, love, and compassion that the people operate from daily. A nation that has learned how to fight hard against division and violence, and has endeavored to tell the story, in honor of what was lost, in hope that it will never happen again. We went as a group to teach peace, but by the end of the trip I realized that in a lot of ways they have taught us so much more about peace.”

Husain Abdullah, Dispute Resolution Graduate Student, Retired NFL Athlete
“I saw the recognition of one’s humanness. Dehumanization and derision is what led to an unprecedented crime against humanity in 1994. Today we race to mock and ridicule “the other”. We troll, we meme, we snark, we debase, we disrespect each other to the point of no return. That’s the language of oppression, the language of genocide. By recognizing the other person as human. Born with unalienable rights. Capable of great feats. Filled with thoughts, feelings, experiences and goals. Worthy to exist. Worthy to exist alongside oneself. This will allow us to sit at the same table, break bread and cultivate an understanding amongst one another. Peace.”

Dr. Ben Voth, Director of Debate, SMU Associate Professor of CCPA
“There are several things I saw in the Rwandan people that we could use to build peace here. One is the model of forgiveness that we saw in the communities near Kigali. Victims and participants of 1994 genocide spoke with clarity and conviction about their suffering. They spoke candidly about their obligations toward one another and victims spoke of how they had forgiven those who had wronged them. Those words were matched with deeds. We saw a home build by a genocide participant who provided this action as a matter of restitution to a woman who lost family in the genocide. There communication and actions toward reconciliation are a model for overcoming conflict here at home. I also saw and heard the young members of the Rwandan debate team on Thursday night. While in their home, about a dozen high school debaters served me a traditional Rwandan meal and regaled me with their own improvisational debates about Rwandan politics. They quizzed me about American politics and opinions. Their strong intellectual banter conducted with such friendly care inspired me to believe in the future of Rwanda and the power of debate. Several of them were part of the teams that traveled to the SMU campus in 2014 and 2015. I realized that night that debate is a pedagogical practice that can open hearts and minds over vast distances. I can envision debate instruction in the United States and Rwanda where exchanges embody the human capacity for positive change. I also saw in the 50 Rwandan security force members a patient desire and seeking for education. Despite the challenges of translation and occasional power outages, these men and women listened, wrote and spoke about how to best resolve conflict in their communities. Their examples made me believe we can seek the same education here at home for police and community leaders. Rwanda has much to offer as a nation that is presently excelling in health and economic welfare. Rwanda’s life expectancy of 64 years is an amazing recover from a low of 25 years during the genocide less than 25 years ago. Life expectancy has advanced two years for every year that has passed since those tragic events. Rwanda is the come back nation. It is a nation that made me want to return to that great nation for all the lessons I learned there.”

More details can be seen in my blog post about these events: 

Lori Anne Shaw, Director of Training & Development at Duncum Center Solutions, Abilene Christian University 
“The Rwandan people have much to teach us about building peace. For example, Rwandans deliberately and bravely choose hope over fear. Fear drives people to devalue and dehumanize others. For Rwandans, fear led to ideologies that caused 800,000 people to die in the genocide. Rwandans acknowledge the horror of the genocide, reflect on the harm it caused, and boldly choose to hope in a different future for Rwanda. This hope leads Rwandans to the new ideology that all people are of equal value. It leads them to the brave work of forgiveness and healing the emotional wounds left by the genocide. Lastly, it is hope in a unified country that pushes Rwandans to actively work against harmful, dehumanizing ideologies.

As Americans, we are equally as susceptible to being driven by fear as Rwandans were before the genocide. We must continue to remember that fear has led (and continues to lead) to killing in our own country. As Americans, we must be aware that ideologies that devalue others – whether it be other Americans or people from other countries – are just as dangerous as they were in pre-genocide Rwanda. Therefore, we too must bravely choose hope in the face of fear to create a better America. We can act out this hope by acknowledging that all people are of equal value, by choosing forgiveness and healing the wounds in our own relationships, and by speaking up against ideologies that dehumanize others. Then, like Rwandans, we too will be making our country a better place.”

Chris Snyder, SMU Guest
“The trip to Rwanda was the most impactful trip I have ever experienced. While I tried to avoid preconceived notions going into the trip, I was struck by the beauty of the land and its people. Every person I encountered was kind, generous and welcoming. I had the tremendous privilege of volunteering for three days at Les Enfants de Dieu, which is an orphanage for street children. It is difficult to succinctly summarize such a moving experience. Among the myriad of positive attributes I observed, the one that is perhaps the most meaningful from a peace building perspective is resilience. Upon reflecting upon the journey this nation has been on dating back to the 1994 genocide and my personal experiences with the children and staff at the orphanage, I walked away with a profound respect for how the people and children of Rwanda are able to thrive in the face of adversity of challenge. The people of Rwanda have shown a remarkable ability to show forgiveness and compassion despite having been through a period of horrific and confounding violence. The children at the orphanage have lived in what we would consider severe poverty, yet I was overwhelmed by the joy, happiness and kindness they exhibited. I believe there is much we can learn from how Rwandans are able to find peace and happiness in the face of challenging circumstances.”

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