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Rwandan Genocide survivor shares message of faith and love with Academy of the Holy Cross

The story Rwandan Genocide survivor shares message of faith and love with Academy of the Holy Cross first appeared on cathstan.org.

Immaculée Ilibagiza is pictured with students of the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland, before a talk she gave to the community on Feb. 13. Ilibagiza survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994 by hiding in a bathroom with seven other women for 91 days. She published a book, “Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” on her experience. Within weeks of publication, the book was named a New York Times best seller. Pictured with Ilibagiza are students (from left to right) Rebecca Bisrat (senior), Jennifer Tartaglia (junior), Melak Armstrong (junior), Izehinosen Okojie (senior). (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

As the Rwandan genocide broke out in 1994, Immaculée Ilibagiza, a young university student at the time, slipped into hiding in a bathroom at her neighbor’s home with seven other women. Throughout the next 91 days, the women remained in the 3-by-4 feet room in silence as their country outside crumbled.

Initially overcome with anger at the injustice around her, Ilibagiza then turned to her rosary, her father’s last gift to her. Through prayer, she found peace and the ability to forgive, despite losing her family, except one brother who was living abroad, and many friends who were among the estimated 1 million people in her country to die during the genocide.

Ilibagiza shared her message of love, faith and forgiveness with the students and community at Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland on Feb. 13.

“It was a terrible experience. In my life, I never thought suffering like that was possible, but I am so glad I was with God,” she said. “I would not be here today if I had not prayed and truly turned to God. Either I would have gone crazy and run out of that bathroom, or I would have become so angry, as I was getting, I would have tried revenge, and I would have been killed.”

Ilibagiza said she owes her survival to prayer, which ultimately allowed her to forgive.

“God does love all of us, but when we hold onto Him, He definitely does guide us,” she said.

Immaculée Ilibagiza is pictured holding the rosary that her father gave her before she went into hiding in 1994. While in hiding, she prayed 27 rosaries and 40 Divine Mercy chaplets each day. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Understanding the “power of love” was one of the biggest messages Ilibagiza shared with the students.

“We failed to love one another (in Rwanda),” she said. “If we had loved one another as people, as simple as kindness we show to each other, compassion we have toward each other, looking at each other and caring what another person feels, we would not have had a genocide.”

She encouraged the young women at the Academy of the Holy Cross to “be that loving person every day,” as they go about their lives.

Ilibagiza also said that “faith is everything and forgiveness is possible,” adding that she relied on prayer to survive in the bathroom during those 91 days. She said she prayed 27 rosaries and 40 Divine Mercy Chaplets each day in hiding.

“I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t move, so I just prayed…it was the only time I could feel peace, I could feel okay,” she said.

Ilibagiza spent her time in hiding planning a future and learning English, knowing that her country would be quite different after the turmoil.

“I started to put together different phrases: ‘My name is…,’ ‘I come from…,’” she said. “Three months later, I found myself in the office of the United Nations, having an interview in English, and every single question they asked me, I had memorized it, even the answers. I started to learn it in the bathroom, I realized it was God preparing me for what was coming.”

After moving to the United States in 1998, she worked at the United Nations until the publication of her book, Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, in 2006, which quickly became a New York Times best seller.

Her experience has allowed Ilibagiza to see each day as a gift.

“Just go out and love,” she told the students. “But don’t ignore what you have every moment… Do the best you can to be kind, to be helpful. If tomorrow comes, good for us.”

Since the publication of her first book, Immaculée Ilibagiza has published many others about prayer, the rosary, and Our Lady of Kibeho. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The community at the Academy of the Holy Cross received individual copies of Left to Tell to read before the Christmas holiday, and throughout January, religion and social studies classes studied the book.

For senior Shelby Wilson, her biggest takeaway from Ilibagiza’s message was that “loving people is at the root.”

“Loving people for truly who they are is at the root of being kind,” she said.

Wilson worked to make the Academy of the Holy Cross a “No Place for Hate” campus last April by establishing a committee of students, faculty and parents who come together for activities and programs to create places of kindness and “celebrate our differences,” Wilson said. There are more than 1,600 “No Place for Hate” schools across the nation.

“The concept of forgiveness, when you see what she went through, goes a long way,” senior Rebecca Bisrat said of the impact of Ilibagiza’s message.

Rose Milano, another senior at Academy of the Holy Cross, also said Ilibagiza’s message of forgiveness was particularly important. She added that Ilibagiza’s faith was inspiring, especially how, “she just talks to Him (God) like He’s right there.”