South Orangetown Central School District

This morning, Tappan Zee High School hosted a presentation by Genocide Survivors Foundation founder Jacqueline Murekatete, who spoke with twelfth-graders about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as well as past and current human rights violations around the globe.

“We cover the genocide in Rwanda in tenth-grade World History, and other genocides across our high school social studies curriculum. For our current seniors, it would have been covered during the COVID school closure in spring of their sophomore year. However, given the circumstances, we found that few of them recalled much about this topic. Civics and citizenship are core components of our curriculum and with multiple atrocities continuing to occur across the globe we leaped at the opportunity to bring an eyewitness to this history to our school,” TZHS Social Studies Team Leader Scott Silver explained.

“Our students learn about genocide and human rights violations through their English and social studies coursework over their four years here. It has been a goal of ours to bring in guest speakers to connect the classroom with what’s happening in our world, but we haven’t been able to do it for the past two years because of the pandemic,” noted TZHS Principal Rudy Arietta, who joined the District in 2019. “We are thankful for being able to welcome Ms. Murekatete and listen to her story in-person.”

Murekatete emigrated from Rwanda to the United States in 1995 at the age of 10 after surviving the 100-day genocide, which claimed an estimated one million people, including her parents, siblings, grandmother and members of her extended family. She was inspired to share her harrowing story after Holocaust survivor David Gewirtzman spoke at her high school.

Seeing commonalities in their experiences, Murekatete and Gewirtzman began speaking together across the U.S. to encourage people to do more to prevent genocide. In 2006, they spoke at a school where Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Brian Culot, Ed.D., was the principal. “It was a life-changing experience for me and the entire school community,” Culot recalled “It is an honor and a privilege to have Ms. Murekatete, an internationally-recognized human rights advocate, speak with our students and staff here this morning.”

“Despite the ‘never again’ that has been said many times, genocide is a crime that continues today. Many ethnic and religious minorities live under the threat of extermination around the world,” Murekatete said. “We were killed by our neighbors–people whose children we grew up with, people we shared meals with and went to church with. How is it that neighbors turn against each other? It’s when we stop seeing each other as human beings and rather as vermin to be exterminated.”

Murekatete recounted the history that culminated in the 1994 genocide, including decades of anti-Tutsi discriminatory practices, government-sponsored massacres, a sustained propaganda campaign intended to dehumanize the minority ethnic group and training of a youth militia to carry out genocide.

“As you embark on a new chapter of your life, always see yourself as an agent of positive change. Recognize that you have power and use it. Human diversity is not adversity–it is a strength. Focus on our common humanity and take responsibility for protecting one another,” Murekatete advised. “Education is our best hope to fight hate. Exposure and learning to respect and appreciate each other from a young age makes you less susceptible to manipulation and to falling victim to those who incite hate. The more upstanders we have, the less likely it is that these atrocities will continue to happen.”

Several students, including senior Maya N., stayed to speak personally with Murekatete. “I absolutely loved hearing her speak and she was so inspirational to me. Ms. Murekatete is truly such a kind soul and remarkable person. It was hard to hear all the traumatic experiences she went through but it made me realize that these things sadly happen often and are still happening. Her strength and courage to spread awareness helped me recognize that change is possible and that the willingness to want change is determined by yourself,” she reflected. “Her visit was meaningful to me because I’m very interested in doing nonprofit work in college and she really inspired me to make change, no matter how small it is.”

Administrators and TZHS students with Jacqueline Murekatete